DeShaney v. Winnebago Cty. DSS,
489 U.S. 189 (1989)

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U.S. Supreme Court

DeShaney v. Winnebago Cty. DSS, 489 U.S. 189 (1989)

DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services

No. 87-154

Argued November 2, 1988

Decided February 22, 1989

489 U.S. 189


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 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. 489 U. S. 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. 489 U. S. 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 489 U. S. 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. 489 U. S. 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. 489 U. S. 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. 489 U. S. 203. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 489 U. S. 212.

Page 489 U. S. 191

Primary Holding

The Fourteenth Amendment does not require the state to intervene in protecting residents from actions of private parties that may infringe on their life, liberty, and property.


When the DeShaneys divorced, their son Joshua was placed in the custody of his father, Randy, who eventually remarried. Joshua's stepmother later sought a divorce, and she told the Winnebago County Department of Social Services that Randy had abused Joshua. When DSS followed up with Randy, he denied the accusation, and DSS took no further action, although one of its case workers suspected that abuse was responsible for Joshua's frequent trips to the hospital. He suffered many bruises and head injuries, and he briefly spent time in the temporary custody of the hospital, pursuant to a DSS recommendation. A child protection team eventually decided that Joshua should return to his father. Several months later, Randy beat Joshua so viciously that he fell into a coma and suffered devastating brain damage.

Joshua filed a damages claim against DSS with the assistance of his biological mother. They provided evidence that he would need to spend the rest of his life in a facility for the mentally retarded. The claim hinged on a Fourteenth Amendment argument that DSS had infringed Joshua's right to liberty by failing to protect him against a risk of abuse by Randy of which it knew or should have known.



  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)
  • Byron Raymond White
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Anthony M. Kennedy

Due process is designed to protect individuals from the government rather than from one another. This claim is properly brought under the substantive rather than the procedural component of due process. Due process does not give rise to an affirmative right to government assistance with protecting one's life, liberty, or property. The government cannot be held liable for injuries that might not have happened if it had provided certain services if it has no duty to provide those protective services. At the time that the government returned the child to his father, he was not in a worse position than he would have been in had the state never taken custody of him. The government does not assume a permanent guarantee of an individual's safety once it provides protection for a temporary period.


  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun

The state had played an active role in the child's life by providing child protection services. The existence and use of these programs removed the duty from private individuals and other government agencies to help prevent the abuse. The duty of others consisted only of reporting the abuse. Since the child protection program took sole responsibility for providing protection and then withheld protection, it should be held accountable for any harm caused by its failure to act.


  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)

This issue lies in the gray, malleable area around the edges of Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence, so reasonable minds may reach different conclusions. In the case at hand, it would be appropriate to use a relatively humane interpretation of constitutional protections that supports fundamental justice and recognizes the need for compassion.

Case Commentary

The state could not have intervened to make a decision that was harmful to the child, but it did not have the obligation to alter an existing situation through its intervention. This decision contrasts with another case in which the Court found that mentally deficient individuals have a due process right to safe living conditions if they are unable to secure them for themselves.

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