Published January, 1989

DeShany v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Servs., 498 U.S. 189 (1989)

In 1984, four-year-old Joshua DeShaney became comatose and then profoundly retarded due to traumatic head injuries inflicted by his father, who physically beat him over a long period of time. The Winnebago County Department of Social Services took various steps to protect the child after receiving numerous complaints of the abuse; however, the Department did not act to remove Joshua from his father's custody. Joshua DeShaney's mother subsequently sued the Winnebago County Department of Social Services, alleging that the Department had deprived the child 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 U.S. Supreme Court rejected this argument in a 6-3 decision and held that, "a State's failure to protect an individual against private violence does not violate the Due Process Clause." The Court also went on to say that, "[t]he 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."

At the same time, however, the Court held that "a State may not, of course, selectively deny its protective services to certain disfavored minorities without violating the Equal Protection Clause." The Court recognized that, "in certain limited circumstances the Constitution imposes upon the State affirmative duties of care and protection with respect to particular individuals." Such "special relationship" cases arise when the state, "through the affirmative exercise of its powers, acts to restrain an individual's freedom to act on his own behalf," such as incarceration.