DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Services
489 U.S. 189 (1989)

  • Randy got custody of his son Joshua in a divorce proceeding.
  • After allegations of child abuse and a hospital visit, the Dept. of Social Services (DSS) started visiting Randy to check on Joshua.
    • Despite the fact that the DSS social worker repeatedly found evidence of continuing abuse, no action was taking to remove Joshua from Randy’s custody.
  • Randy beat Joshua so badly that he caused massive, permanent brain damage. Randy was arrested and convicted of child abuse.
  • Joshua’s mother sued DSS, claiming that Joshua’s constitutional right to liberty had been denied without due process by DSS’s failure to intervene and protect him from violence. That’s would be an unconstitutional violation of the 14th Amendment.
  • The Trial Court found for DSS. Joshua appealed.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed. Joshua appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court affirmed.
    • The US Supreme Court found that the government does not have an obligation under the Due Process Clause to prevent child abuse when the child is
      • In parental, not agency custody, and
      • The State did not create the danger of abuse or increase the child’s vulnerability to abuse.
    • The Court found that failure to prevent child abuse by a custodial parent does not violate the child’s right to liberty for the purposes of the 14th Amendment.
      • Basically, this is similar to the tort law concept of nonfeasance. The State is not constitutionally obligated to protect people from harms that the State did not generate.
        • The Court noted that DSS may have established a duty to care by deciding to visit Joshua, but that was a tort law issue, not a constitutionally-guaranteed right.
      • “The Due Process Clause is phrased as a limitation on the State’s power to act, not as a guarantee of certain minimal levels of safety and security; while it forbids the State itself to deprive individuals of life, liberty, and property without due process of law, its language cannot fairly be read to impose an affirmative obligation on the State to ensure that those interests do not come to harm through other means.”
  • In a dissent it was argued that a private citizen or government worker who noticed abuse, would consider their job done once they reported the situation to DSS. DSS’s inaction ensured that kids like Joshua would not receive any help, and therefore was an unconstitutional infringement on their liberty interests.