Legal Citation: 489 U.S. 189 (1989)
Melody DeShaney for her son, Joshua DeShaney
Winnebago County Department of Social Services
That the social workers and the county had violated Joshua DeShaney's right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment by its failure to intervene to protect Joshua from his father's violence.
Chief Lawyer for Petitioner
Donald J. Sullivan
Chief Lawyer for Respondant
Mark J. Mingo
Justices for the Court
Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, William H. Rehnquist (writing for the Court), Antonin Scalia, John Paul Stevens, Byron R. White
Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall
Date of Decision
22 February 1989
That Winnebago County Department of Social Services was not responsible for Joshua's severe beating, even though they had ample evidence that abuse was occurring and did nothing to prevent it.
That the state...
(The entire section is 1661 words.)
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Petitioner: Melody DeShaney for her son, Joshua DeShaney
Respondent: Winnebago County Department of Social Services
Petitioner's Claim: That Winnebago County in Wisconsin violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by failing to protect Joshua DeShaney from the violent abuse of his father.
Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Donald J. Sullivan
Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Mark J. Mingo
Justices for the Court: Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, John Paul Stevens, Byron R. White
Justices Dissenting: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall
Date of Decision: February 22, 1989
Decision: Ruled in favor of Winnebago County by finding the county was not responsible for Joshua's severe beating.
Significance: The ruling raised considerable concern among advocates for protecting children from abusive parents. The Court's decision approved the inaction of a government welfare agency, even when aware of ongoing abuse.
Well into the nineteenth century, children were considered property of the father. However, later in the century concern increased over the wellbeing of the nation's children. The relationship between child and parent received more special legal attention. Cases of neglect or abuse attracted particular public interest.
In the United States, state laws primarily govern the parent-child relationship, protecting the relationship as well as the rights of both. Ordinarily, the parent holds a constitutional right to custody (making key life decisions for another) of their child as well as the duty to care for the child. A child has the right to receive sufficient care, including food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and presumably love and affection. Through time states have assumed greater responsibility for making sure children are receiving this proper care. The growing responsibilities include greater powers to intervene (come in to settle) in family matters, particularly in cases of neglect or abuse. Parents not adequately performing their duties may be criminally charged. In determining custody of children, a rule known as the "best interest of the child" is often used by the court for cases that come before them.
Joshua was born to Randy and Melody DeShaney in 1979 in Wyoming. Soon after, in 1980, the DeShaneys divorced with Randy receiving custody of Joshua. Randy and Joshua moved to Wisconsin and before long Randy remarried. With a break up of the second marriage soon occurring, a pattern of child abuse began to emerge. In 1982 the second wife, shortly before divorce, reported regular physical abuse of Joshua to Wisconsin child welfare agencies. The Winnebago County Department of Social Services (DSS) began to investigate. However, denials of the accusations by Randy DeShaney led to the county taking no action at the time.
In January of 1983, Joshua arrived at a hospital emergency with bruises that an attending physician believed resulted from abuse. The doctor notified DSS and a team of child care workers were assembled to tackle the case. Joshua was temporarily placed in custody of the hospital for three days. However, no charges against Randy were made and Joshua was returned to him. The county did make several recommendations, including that Joshua be enrolled in a pre-school program and Randy attend counseling. Also, a social worker, Ann Kemmeter, was assigned to the case to watch over Joshua through regular visits to his home.
Through the following year Kemmeter visited the DeShaneys approximately twenty times. She made notes of bumps and bruises on occasion including injuries to the head. She also noted that Randy never enrolled Joshua in pre-school or attended counseling sessions. During this time period Joshua visited emergency rooms twice more where doctors observed more suspicious injuries. Despite Kemmeter later admitting she feared for Joshua's life, the state still took no action to intervene in the father and child relationship.
Finally, in March of 1984, one day after yet another visit by Kemmeter, the four year old boy fell into a coma after a severe beating. Joshua came out of his coma, but was suffering from severe brain damage leaving him permanently paralyzed and mentally retarded. Joshua had to be placed in an institution for full-time care for the rest of his life at public expense.
Mother Sues the Child Welfare Agency
Randy DeShaney was charged with child abuse and found guilty. He was sentenced for up to four years in prison, but actually served less than two years before receiving parole. Disappointed with the conviction and sentencing, Joshua's mother, Melody, filed suit against DSS for not rescuing Joshua from his father before the fateful beating. Melody charged that Winnebago County and its social workers had violated Joshua's due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution by not taking action.
The due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment declares that states shall not "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Melody DeShaney charged the state had denied Joshua his rights to liberty by not taking action when it was fully aware of the situation. The federal district court, however, ruled in favor of Winnebago County. Melody DeShaney appealed the decision to the federal court of appeals which affirmed the district court's decision. DeShaney next appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which agreed to hear the case. DeShaney again argued that the county had a responsibility to protect the child since it not only knew of the situation and had even held custody of Joshua for three days. She claimed the state had established a "special relationship" with Joshua and that relationship created a responsibility to protect him from known dangers.
State Not Constitutionally Responsible
Chief Justice William Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court. Rehnquist found that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment only applies to states, not private citizens. Rehnquist wrote that the purpose of the due process clause "was to protect the people from the State, not to ensure that the State protected them from each other." He found neither "guarantee of certain minimal levels of safety and security" for the nation's citizens through the clause nor did he find a "right to governmental aid." Therefore, "the State cannot be held liable under the Clause for the injuries" that might have been prevented if it had more fully used its protective services.
Rehnquist further explained that the due process clause would only apply in cases where the state had assumed custody of a person against their will and then had not adequately provided for their "safety and general well-being." Then a deprivation (withholding) of liberty by the state would have occurred.
In summary, the Court concluded the state had neither played any part in directly causing the injuries nor had made him more vulnerable. Rehnquist wrote, "Under these circumstances, the State had no constitutional duty to protect Joshua." In fact, if the state had acted to take custody of Joshua away from Randy DeShaney, it may have been charged with "improperly intruding into the parent-child relationship" under the same due process clause. Rehnquist did add, however, that the state may have been guilty of some duty under Wisconsin law, but that was not the subject of DeShaney's charges.
State Has Responsibility By Its Very Existence
Three of the Court justices dissented (disagreed) with the majority's decision. Justice Brennan, writing for the other two, asserted that the very existence of the Wisconsin child-welfare system means that its citizens have a certain level of dependence on the services in provides. Public expectations create a state responsibility to act when conditions come to its attention, such as with Joshua. If the services did not exist, then those concerned with Joshua might have taken other action to help which might have made a major difference in his life.
As Justice Blackmun, also dissenting, added,
Poor Joshua! Victim of repeated attacks by an irresponsible, bullying, cowardly, and intemperate father, and abandoned by respondents who placed him in a dangerous predicament and who knew or learned what was going on, and yet did essentially nothing except . . . 'dutifully recorded these incidents in [their] files.'
Concern for Children's Safety Raised
The Court's ruling raised considerable concern among child welfare advocates. They claimed the rights of the child to a safe, nurturing home environment were ignored. The decision, they believed, set a dangerous precedent for future rulings in similar cases of abuse. They reasoned, what if the police knew of a murder about to happen, but chose to do nothing to stop it? Similar to the county's inaction to help Joshua, the police would not have caused the death directly, nor made the victim worse off. Yet many would consider the police negligent (failing to do take the required action) in their duties to protect the citizens in their jurisdiction.
Suggestions for further reading
Helfer, Mary Edna, Ruth S. Kempe, and Richard D. Krugman, eds. The Battered Child. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Pelzer, David J. A Child Called "It:" An Abused Child's Journey from Victim to Victor. Deefield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1995.
Trickett, Penelope K., and Cynthia D. Schellenbach, eds. Violence Against Children in the Family and the Community. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1998.
Besharov, Douglas. Recognizing Child Abuse: A Guide for the Concerned. New York: Free Press, 1990.
Haskins, James. The Child Abuse Help Book. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1982. (for adolescent readers)