DeShaney v. Winnebago County: Government Neglect and the Blessings of Liberty


DeShaney v. Winnebago County: Government Neglect and the Blessings of Liberty



In this essay the author examines the impact of DeShaney v. Winnebago County, 489 US 189 (1989). In this case, the mother of Joshua DeShaney sued the Winnebago County Department of Social Services (DSS) under 42 USC §1983 for compensatory damages on behalf of her son, who suffered extreme abuse resulting in severe mental disabilities at the hands of his father during the time he was being monitored by a DSS social worker. In most such cases where no state actor is the direct cause of harm, courts have concluded that the “state action requirement” for a Fourteenth Amendment violation cannot be satisfied, and the remaining questions related to the second step in such lawsuits—the liability inquiry addressing such issues as individual officer immunity defenses—are never reached. The author surmises that courts’ inaction stems from overweening conventional wisdom that constitutional rights are meant to limit state action, not provide affirmative duties with which the government must comply. At the time of the DeShaney suit, a series of cases from the lower federal courts seemed to set the stage for success in persuading courts to recognize exceptions to this general approach. The key issue in these cases concerned what circumstances would trigger a governmental affirmative duty to protect individuals from private violence. In these affirmative duties cases, federal judges introduced two major doctrinal theories holding the government responsible for failure to act: (1) The custody limitation and (2) The state-created danger requirement. The custody limitation relates to the state’s assumption of complete control over the individual, thereby entering into a “special relationship” with the individual in custody and triggering the assignment of an affirmative duty upon the state to make certain that basic needs are met. The state-created danger doctrine focuses on the state’s involvement in placing the individual in a position of danger. Under this doctrine, even if a private actor later causes an injury, so long as the state created the danger it can be held liable for failing to protect the individual. The Seventh Circuit (812 F.2d 298, 1987) rejected these doctrinal approaches in Deshaney by characterizing the state’s position as a “botched rescue” rather than a deprivation by the state. In a six to two decision, the Supreme Court upheld the Seventh Circuit for similar reasons. The author concludes that the high court’s refusal in DeShaney to assign any constitutional duties to child welfare agencies effectively ended recourse to federal courts by plaintiffs seeking to use §1983 litigation to hold these agencies accountable for their failures to protect them from parental abuse.

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Child welfare, Child endangerment, DeShaney v. Winnebago County, State action requirement, Custody limitation doctrine, State-created danger doctrine, §1983 litigation


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Family Law | Law

DeShaney v. Winnebago County: Government Neglect and the Blessings of Liberty