DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services
Decided on Feb. 22, 1989; 489 US 189


A. Issues Discussed:  Due Process

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does a social worker's failure to act violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?


A. Background:

"The facts of this case are undeniably tragic. Petitioner Joshua DeShaney was born in 1979. In 1980, a Wyoming court granted his parents a divorce and awarded custody of Joshua to his father, Randy DeShaney. The father shortly thereafter moved to Neenah, a city located in Winnebago County, Wisconsin, taking the infant Joshua with him. There he entered into a second marriage, which also ended in divorce.

The Winnebago County authorities first learned that Joshua DeShaney might be a victim of child abuse in January 1982, when his father's second wife complained to the police, at the time of their divorce, that he had previously 'hit the boy causing marks and [was] a prime case for child abuse.' The Winnebago County Department of Social Services (DSS) interviewed the father, but he denied the accusations, and DSS did not pursue them further. In January 1983, Joshua was admitted to a local hospital with multiple bruises and abrasions. The examining physician suspected child abuse and notified DSS, which immediately obtained an order from a Wisconsin juvenile court placing Joshua in the temporary custody of the hospital. Three days later, the county convened an ad hoc 'Child Protection Team' - consisting of a pediatrician, a psychologist, a police detective, the county's lawyer, several DSS case-workers, and various hospital personnel - to consider Joshua's situation. At this meeting, the Team decided that there was insufficient evidence of child abuse to retain Joshua in the custody of the court. The Team did, however, decide to recommend several measures to protect Joshua, including enrolling him in a preschool program, providing his father with certain counselling services, and encouraging his father's girlfriend to move out of the home. Randy DeShaney entered into a voluntary agreement with DSS in which he promised to cooperate with them in accomplishing these goals.

Based on the recommendation of the Child Protection Team, the juvenile court dismissed the child protection case and returned Joshua to the custody of his father. A month later, emergency room personnel called the DSS caseworker handling Joshua's case to report that he had once again been treated for suspicious injuries. The caseworker concluded that there was no basis for action. For the next six months, the caseworker made monthly visits to the DeShaney home, during which she observed a number of suspicious injuries on Joshua's head; she also noticed that he had not been enrolled in school, and that the girlfriend had not moved out. The caseworker dutifully recorded these incidents in her files, along with her continuing suspicions that someone in the DeShaney household was physically abusing Joshua, but she did nothing more. In November 1983, the emergency room notified DSS that Joshua had been treated once again for injuries that they believed to be caused by child abuse. On the caseworker's next two visits to the DeShaney home, she was told that Joshua was too ill to see her. Still DSS took no action.

In March 1984, Randy DeShaney beat 4-year-old Joshua so severely that he fell into a life-threatening coma. Emergency brain surgery revealed a series of hemorrhages caused by traumatic injuries to the head inflicted over a long period of time. Joshua did not die, but he suffered brain damage so severe that he is expected to spend the rest of his life confined to an institution for the profoundly retarded. Randy DeShaney was subsequently tried and convicted of child abuse.

Joshua and his mother brought this action under 42 U.S.C. 1983 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin against respondents Winnebago County, DSS, and various individual employees of DSS. The complaint alleged that respondents had deprived Joshua of his liberty without due process of law, in violation of his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, by failing to intervene to protect him against a risk of violence at his father's hands of which they knew or should have known. The District Court granted summary judgment for respondents.

The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed..."

On certiorari the US Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union Children's Rights Project et al. by Christopher A. Hansen, Marcia Robinson Lowry, John A. Powell, Steven R. Shapiro, and Helen Hershkoff; and for the Massachusetts Committee for Children and Youth by Laura L. Carroll.

Donald J. Sullivan argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs was Curry First.

Briefs urging affirmance were filed for the State of New York et al. by Robert Abrams, Attorney General of New York, O. Peter Sherwood, Solicitor General, Peter H. Schiff, Deputy Solicitor General, and Michael S. Buskus, Assistant Attorney General, Joseph I. Lieberman, Attorney General of Connecticut, J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General of Maryland, Dave Frohnmayer, Attorney General of Oregon, LeRoy S. Zimmerman, Attorney General of Pennsylvania, Donald J. Hanaway, Attorney General of Wisconsin, and Charles Hoornstra, Assistant Attorney General; and for the National Association of Counties et al. by Benna Ruth Solomon and Douglas A. Poe.

Mark J. Mingo argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Wayne M. Yankala and Joel I. Klein. Deputy Solicitor General Ayer argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Fried, Assistant Attorney General Bolton, Roy T. Englert, Jr., Barbara L. Herwig, and John S. Koppel.


"The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that '[n]o State shall... deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.' Petitioners contend that the State deprived Joshua of his liberty interest in 'free[dom] from... unjustified intrusions on personal security,' by failing to provide him with adequate protection against his father's violence. The claim is one invoking the substantive rather than the procedural component of the Due Process Clause; petitioners do not claim that the State denied Joshua protection without according him appropriate procedural safeguards but that it was categorically obligated to protect him in these circumstances.

But nothing in the language of the Due Process Clause itself requires the State to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors. The 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. It forbids the State itself to deprive individuals of life, liberty, or property without 'due process of law,' but its language cannot fairly be extended to impose an affirmative obligation on the State to ensure that those interests do not come to harm through other means. Nor does history support such an expansive reading of the constitutional text. Like its counterpart in the Fifth Amendment, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to prevent government 'from abusing [its] power, or employing it as an instrument of oppression,'. Its purpose was to protect the people from the State, not to ensure that the State protected them from each other. The Framers were content to leave the extent of governmental obligation in the latter area to the democratic political processes.

Consistent with these principles, our cases have recognized that the Due Process Clauses generally confer no affirmative right to governmental aid, even where such aid may be necessary to secure life, liberty, or property interests of which the government itself may not deprive the individual. If the Due Process Clause does not require the State to provide its citizens with particular protective services, it follows that the State cannot be held liable under the Clause for injuries that could have been averted had it chosen to provide them. As a general matter, then, we conclude that a State's failure to protect an individual against private violence simply does not constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause.

Petitioners contend, however, that even if the Due Process Clause imposes no affirmative obligation on the State to provide the general public with adequate protective services, such a duty may arise out of certain 'special relationships' created or assumed by the State with respect to particular individuals. Petitioners argue that such a 'special relationship' existed here because the State knew that Joshua faced a special danger of abuse at his father's hands, and specifically proclaimed, by word and by deed, its intention to protect him against that danger...

We reject this argument. It is true that in certain limited circumstances the Constitution imposes upon the State affirmative duties of care and protection with respect to particular individuals...

But these cases afford petitioners no help. Taken together, they stand only for the proposition 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...

It may well be that, by voluntarily undertaking to protect Joshua against a danger it concededly played no part in creating, the State acquired a duty under state tort law to provide him with adequate protection against that danger. But the claim here is based on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which, as we have said many times, does not transform every tort committed by a state actor into a constitutional violation....

Judges and lawyers, like other humans, are moved by natural sympathy in a case like this to find a way for Joshua and his mother to receive adequate compensation for the grievous harm inflicted upon them. But before yielding to that impulse, it is well to remember once again that the harm was inflicted not by the State of Wisconsin, but by Joshua's father..."

The US Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Justice Vote: 3 Pro vs. 6 Con

  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J.P. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S.D. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)

The ACLU, as amicus, urged reversal of the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals' judgment; the Supreme Court affirmed in a 6-3 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.