DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services

RESPONDENT: Winnebago County Department of Social Services
LOCATION: DeShaney Residence

DOCKET NO.: 87-154
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

CITATION: 489 US 189 (1989)
ARGUED: Nov 02, 1988
DECIDED: Feb 22, 1989

Donald B. Ayer - Argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance
Donald James Sullivan - on behalf of petitioners
Donald J. Sullivan - Argued the cause for the petitioners
Mark J. Mingo - Argued the cause for the respondents

Facts of the case

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."


Does a state's failure to protect an individual against private violence constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Media for DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 02, 1988 in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in No. 87-154, Joshua DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services.

Mr. Sullivan, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Donald James Sullivan:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

We are here contending today not for a broad constitutional mandate to the states to do all good things to all people, nor do we contend for a broad constitutional duty to prevent all harm or all sadness, nor do we contend for a broad constitutional duty to protect all children in all cases.

Byron R. White:

xxx narrow one [inaudible].

Donald James Sullivan:

None in those situations--

Byron R. White:


Donald James Sullivan:

--Justice White.

We do suggest that there is one and only one exquisitely narrow circumstance where there is an affirmative duty.

I would suggest that there are two primary elements to the one and only one circumstance for which we argue.

The first is the existence of a child/parent relationship.

The other is what I term enmeshment, intricate intimacy, enmeshment of the agents of the state in a particular circumstance which would have three characteristics: the first, an extreme danger to a particular individual child; the second, abundant actual knowledge on the part of the agents of the state; and the third, an actual undertaking by the state to protect the child.

William H. Rehnquist:

You derive all this from the language of the due process clause?

Donald James Sullivan:

Indeed, Your Honor.

We think it arises from that and from the nature of the relationship and from the way the Court has... has accorded the relationship.

If I may... if I may explain.

It is my view... it is our view that the protector of the child, the raiser of the child, the person with the right and the power and the authority and the duty to educate the child, teach the child, provide medical care, all those parental things, including setting bedtime, is the parent and not the state.

The... the other side of that coin is that there is one and only one circumstance where when the family unit... and I don't care whether it's a married family or a step-parent or whatever, but when the child is at home and the door is closed to the world, the people with whom that child is locked in, his natural and his inherent protectors, from those individuals alone, whether it's a father, a step-mother, a live-in girlfriend of what have you... from those protectors alone he has no protection.

And in that one and only one circumstance, I think that's appropriate.

And I would further respond to your question, Mr. Chief Justice, by saying this.

It is only in that one circumstance, as I understand the cases... it is only in that one circumstance that the Court has already interposed any aspect of the Constitution.

And I don't want that changed.

I don't ask that that be applied to a different circumstance.

What I'm saying is this.

Take the situation where the child is locked behind the door with his protector and the protector becomes the predator, and a proceeding is brought at the extreme end of the child protection spectrum to terminate the parental rights.

The Court has already said that the Constitution governs that relationship.

The Court has already recognized it in the relationship between the adult and the child that the Constitution prevails and it prevails both substantively and procedurally.

What I mean is this.

We know that any parent has a constitutionally recognized right to the... if I may simplify it, to the possession of the child, care, custody, companionship, all those... all those kinds of things that go with being a parent.

We also know that that right of parenthood cannot be terminated except by procedural due process protections.