DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Services

489 U.S. 189 (1989)

Quick Summary

Joshua DeShaney (plaintiff) suffered abuse at the hands of his father. Winnebago County Department of Social Services (defendant) was aware of the abuse but did not remove him from his father’s custody. After sustaining severe injuries, Joshua and his mother sued under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The issue was whether the state’s failure to protect an individual from private violence violated due process rights. The Supreme Court held that there is no constitutional duty for a state to protect an individual from private violence when not in state custody, affirming the lower courts’ judgments.

Facts of the Case

Joshua DeShaney (plaintiff), a young boy, was subjected to severe abuse by his father, Randy DeShaney. Despite multiple indications of abuse and interventions by the Winnebago County Department of Social Services (defendant), the agency did not remove Joshua from his father’s custody. Joshua sustained a violent attack by his father resulting in permanent brain damage.

The Department had been alerted to potential abuse through reports, including hospitalizations and observations of injuries. They took temporary protective custody but eventually returned Joshua to his father, after which the abuse continued.

The case arose when Joshua and his mother sued the Winnebago County Department of Social Services for failing to protect Joshua, asserting a violation of his Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. The federal district court granted summary judgment to Winnebago County.
  2. The court of appeals affirmed the district court’s decision.
  3. The case was then brought before the Supreme Court of the United States on a grant of certiorari.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether a state government’s failure to protect an individual against private violence constitutes a violation of the individual’s due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Rule of Law

The Due Process Clause does not impose an affirmative obligation on the state to ensure that citizens are protected against private acts of violence.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court held that the Due Process Clause is a limitation on the state’s power, not a guarantee of certain safety levels against private actions. The Court emphasized that the state’s failure to act does not equate to a constitutional violation when it comes to protecting individuals from private violence.

The Court reasoned that while the state may have known about the potential danger to Joshua, it did not create that danger nor did it make him more vulnerable to it.

Furthermore, the Court distinguished this case from its precedents involving state custody, where the state has an affirmative duty to protect individuals due to their inability to care for themselves. The Court concluded that since Joshua was not in state custody at the time of the abuse, there was no constitutional duty for the state to protect him.


The Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision, concluding that Winnebago County’s failure to protect Joshua DeShaney did not constitute a violation of his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Dissenting Opinions

Justice Brennan, joined by Justices Marshall and Blackmun, dissented, arguing that the State had created a certain expectation by taking specific actions to protect children like Joshua and thus had a constitutional duty to act.

Key Takeaways

  1. The Due Process Clause does not obligate states to protect citizens from private acts of violence.
  2. A state’s knowledge of potential danger does not create an affirmative constitutional duty to protect individuals from that danger unless they are in state custody.
  3. State liability under the Due Process Clause arises from actions taken by the state, not from inaction or failure to act.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes state-created danger and how does it differ from failure to act?

State-created danger occurs when the actions of the state itself put an individual in a more dangerous situation than they would have been in had the state not acted. This differs from a mere failure to act, where the state is passive or inactive in facing a risk or harm to an individual that it did not create. In the context of state responsibility, liability often arises only when there is affirmative conduct by the state that directly endangers an individual.

  • For example: If police detain a person, then release them into a known dangerous area where they are assaulted, this may constitute a state-created danger as opposed to simply not providing general police protection in that area.

How does the Due Process Clause protect individuals from state action as opposed to private action?

The Due Process Clause protects individuals from wrongful state action, particularly ensuring that the government respects all legal rights owed to a person under the law. It does not shield individuals from harm caused by private actors unless the state is complicit in creating or enhancing that harm. Typically, due process requires fair legal procedures when a government aims to deprive someone of life, liberty, or property.

  • For example: If a city enforces zoning laws that disproportionately affect one neighborhood’s property values without due process, affected homeowners might claim their Fourteenth Amendment rights have been violated.

In what scenarios does the government have an affirmative duty to protect individuals?

The government has an affirmative duty to protect individuals when it takes them into custody and they’re unable to care for themselves. This can apply to prisoners, involuntarily committed mental patients, and others whose freedom to act on their own behalf is restricted by the state. The duty arises because the state has limited their ability to protect themselves.

  • For example: A prison must provide adequate medical care to inmates as it has curtailed their ability to seek medical care independently due to incarceration.


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