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DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services

Citation. Deshaney v. Winnebago County Dep’t of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189, 109 S. Ct. 998, 103 L. Ed. 2d 249, 57 U.S.L.W. 4218 (U.S. Feb. 22, 1989)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Custody of petitioner was given to his father, who was accused of multiple incidents of child abuse. Respondent child services failed to take custody of petitioner, and petitioner and his mother brought suit against respondents.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The affirmative duty to protect arises not from the State’s knowledge of the individual’s predicament or from its expressions of intent to help him, but from the limitation which it has imposed on his freedom to act on his on behalf.


Petitioner Joshua DeShaney was born in 1979, and custody of him was awarded to his father in 1980. In 1982 authorities first learned petitioner might be a victim of child abuse when his second wife complained to police. The County Department of Social Services (DSS), respondents, interviewed the father, but he denied the accusations and DSS did not pursue it further. In 1983 petitioner was admitted to a local hospital with multiple bruises and abrasions. The physician suspected child abuse and notified DSS. DSS obtained an order placing Joshua in the temporary custody of the hospital. The county convened an ad hoc Child Protection Team, which decided there was insufficient evidence of child abuse to retain petitioner in the custody of the court. The Team recommended several measures to help protect petitioner. A month later emergency room personnel again called the DSS caseworker to report that petitioner had again been treated for suspicious injuries. The caseworker
concluded there was no basis for action. The caseworker made monthly visits to the home. She observed a number of suspicious injuries on petitioner’s head. She also recorded that the measures suggested were not being complied with. In November 1983 DSS was again notified that petitioner was treated for suspected child abuse by the hospital. On the caseworker’s next two visits, she was told that petitioner was too ill to see her, but DSS still took no action. In March 1984, father beat petitioner so severely that he fell into a life-threatening coma. He suffered severe brain damage and was expected to spend the rest of his life confined to an institution for the profoundly retarded. Father was convicted of child abuse.


Did the court correctly grant summary judgment against petitioner in petitioner and his mother’s 42 U.S.C. Section:1983 action alleging that respondents deprived petitioner of his liberty without due process of law by failing to intervene to protect him?


The court acted correctly because the State had no affirmative duty to protect petitioner under the Due Process Clause.
The Due Process Clause provides that no State shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. Nothing requires the State to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors. The Clause is a limitation on the State, not a guarantee of minimal levels of safety and security.

Petitioners contend that such a duty may arise out of certain special relationships created or assumed by the State. They assert that such a relationship existed here because the State knew that petitioner face a special danger of abuse and specifically proclaimed its intention to protect him. They argue that by having actually undertaken to protect him, it acquired an affirmative duty under the Due Process Clause to do so in a reasonably competent manner.

The precedent the petitioner’s point to stands only for the position that when the State takes a person into its custody and holds him there against his will, the Constitution imposes upon it a corresponding duty to assume some responsibility for his safety and general well-being. The affirmative duty to protect arises not from the State’s knowledge of the individual’s predicament or from its expressions of intent to help him, but from the limitation which it has imposed on his freedom to act on his on behalf. In substantive due process analysis, it is the State’s affirmative act of restraining the individual’s freedom that is the deprivation of liberty triggering the protections of the Due Process Clause.

Petitioners concede the harms petitioner suffered did not occur while he was in the State’s custody. The State played no part in their creation, nor did it do anything to render him more vulnerable. At worst, the State stood by and did nothing when suspicious circumstances dictated a more active role. Had they moved too soon, it could have been charged with improperly intruding into the parent-child relationship.


I would focus first on the action that Wisconsin has taken with respect to Joshua and children like him. The Court’s initial fixation that the Constitution does not establish positive rights does not hold true in all circumstances. Precedent has acknowledged that a State’s actions may sometimes impose upon the State certain positive duties. Wisconsin law directs its citizens to depend on local departments of social services such as respondent to protect children from abuse. I would allow petitioners the opportunity to show that respondents’ failure to help him arose from the kind of arbitrariness that we have in the past condemned.
It is a sad commentary that this child will spend the reminder of his life profoundly retarded, but the Court now denies him the opportunity to have the fact of their case considered.


The majority found that the State accrued no positive duty under the Due Process Clause to protect petitioner, while the dissent would have not confirmed the summary judgment, permitting petitioners the opportunity to prove that the State had a positive duty to protect.

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