489 U.S. 189 (1989), 87-154, DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services

Docket Nº:No. 87-154
Citation:489 U.S. 189, 109 S.Ct. 998, 103 L.Ed.2d 249, 57 U.S.L.W. 4218
Party Name:DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services
Case Date:February 22, 1989
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 189

489 U.S. 189 (1989)

109 S.Ct. 998, 103 L.Ed.2d 249, 57 U.S.L.W. 4218



Winnebago County Department of Social Services

No. 87-154

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 22, 1989

Argued November 2, 1988




Petitioner is a child who was subjected to a series of beatings by his father, with whom he lived. Respondents, a county department of social services and several of its social workers, received complaints that petitioner was being abused by his father, and took various steps to protect him; they did not, however, act to remove petitioner from his father's custody. Petitioner's father finally beat him so severely that he suffered permanent brain damage, and was [109 S.Ct. 1000] rendered profoundly retarded. Petitioner and his mother sued respondents under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that respondents had deprived petitioner of his liberty interest in bodily integrity, in violation of his rights under the substantive component of the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause, by failing to intervene to protect him against his father's violence. The District Court granted summary judgment for respondents, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Respondents' failure to provide petitioner with adequate protection against his father's violence did not violate his rights under the substantive component of the Due Process Clause. Pp. 194-203.

(a) A State's failure to protect an individual against private violence generally does not constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause, because the Clause imposes no duty on the State to provide members of the general public with adequate protective services. 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; 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. Pp. 194-197.

(b) There is no merit to petitioner's contention that the State's knowledge of his danger and expressions of willingness to protect him against that danger established a "special relationship" giving rise to an affirmative constitutional duty to protect. While certain "special relationships" created or assumed by the State with respect to particular individuals may give rise to an affirmative duty, enforceable through the Due Process

Page 190

Clause, to provide adequate protection, see Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97; Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 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 limitations which it has imposed on his freedom to act on his own behalf, through imprisonment, institutionalization, or other similar restraint of personal liberty. No such duty existed here, for the harms petitioner suffered did not occur while the State was holding him in its custody, but while he was in the custody of his natural father, who was in no sense a state actor. While the State may have been aware of the dangers that he faced, it played no part in their creation, nor did it do anything to render him more vulnerable to them. Under these circumstances, the Due Process Clause did not impose upon the State an affirmative duty to provide petitioner with adequate protection. Pp. 197-201.

(c) It may well be that, by voluntarily undertaking to provide petitioner with protection against a danger it 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 Due Process Clause does not transform every tort committed by a state actor into a constitutional violation. Pp. 201-202.

812 F.2d. 298, affirmed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 203. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 212.

Page 191

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

[109 S.Ct. 1001] CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner is a boy who was beaten and permanently injured by his father, with whom he lived. Respondents are social workers and other local officials who received complaints that petitioner was being abused by his father and had reason to believe that this was the case, but nonetheless did not act to remove petitioner from his father's custody. Petitioner sued respondents claiming that their failure to act deprived him of his liberty in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. We hold that it did not.


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.

Page 192

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." App. 152-153. 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 caseworkers, 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

Page 193

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 [109 S.Ct. 1002] 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, 812 F.2d 298 (1987), holding that petitioners had not made out an actionable § 1983 claim for two alternative reasons. First, the court held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not require a state or local governmental entity to protect its citizens from "private violence, or other

Page 194

mishaps not attributable to the conduct of its employees." Id. at 301. In so holding, the court specifically rejected the position endorsed by a divided panel of the Third Circuit in Estate of Bailey by Oare v. County of York, 768 F.2d 503, 510-511 (CA3 1985), and by dicta in Jensen v. Conrad, 747 F.2d 185, 190-194 (CA4 1984), cert. denied, 470 U.S. 1052 (1985), that, once the State learns that a particular child is in danger of abuse from third parties and actually undertakes to protect him...

To continue reading