Deshaney v. Winnebago Cty. Dep't of Soc. Servs.

489 U.S. 189, 109 S. Ct. 998 (1989)



Nothing in the language of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires a state to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors. The Due Process Clause is phrased as a limitation on a state's power to act, not as a guarantee of certain minimal levels of safety and security. It forbids a state itself to deprive individuals of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, but its language cannot fairly be extended to impose an affirmative obligation on the state to ensure that those interests do not come to harm through other means. Like its counterpart in the Fifth Amendment, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to prevent government from abusing its power, or employing it as an instrument of oppression. 


Petitioner, a minor child, brought an action under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 against respondents, a county's department of social services and its various employees, for failing to intervene to protect the child against the risk of violence at his father's hands. Respondent 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. The minor child's father beat him to the point where he was deemed to be profoundly retarded. Petitioner child, by his guardian ad litem, alleged that respondents knew or should have known about the risk posed by his father. The district court granted respondents' motion for summary judgment, and the appellate court affirmed. The appellate court found that the child had not made out an actionable § 1983 claim. The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the appellate court.


Did respondent's failure to provide petitioner with adequate protection against his father's violence violate his rights under the substantive component of the Due Process Clause?




On appeal, the Supreme Court found that the actions of the father were reprehensible. However, the Court determined that the Fourteenth Amendment did not require a state or local governmental agency to protect its citizens from private violence or other mishaps not attributable to the conducts of its employees. Therefore, the Court affirmed the lower courts' decisions.

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