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High Court To Rule on Liability in Abuse Cases

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WASHINGTON--The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to decide whether child-protection agencies can be held liable for damages under the 14th Amendment and a related civil-rights law for failing to intervene when a child is known to be in danger of serious physical abuse by his parents.

According to school-law experts, the case, DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services (Case No. 87-154), could have implications for school employees who fail to report suspected cases of abuse to the police or other social-service agencies.

All states have laws or regulations that either implicitly or explicitly mandate that teachers, administrators, and other school workers must act on their suspicions of abuse.

In a related development, the Court last week let stand a federal appellate ruling that the same constitutional and legal provisions cited in the DeShaney case also allow students to seek damages from school officials for "grossly excessive'' corporal punishment. The Justices declined to review an appeal by four New Mexico school employees who were sued in the case, Miera v. Garcia (No. 87-603).

'Substantive' Due Process

The primary issue in both cases is the notion that the 14th Amendment's due-process clause affords persons "substantive'' rights to "life, liberty, and property'' in addition to procedural rights such as timely notice, a prompt hearing, and the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses.

More specifically, the DeShaney and Miera cases raise the question of whether children have a 14th Amendment right to "bodily integrity,'' and, if state officials violate that right either by direct action or negligence, whether those children can seek monetary and injunctive relief under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871.

Lawyers for the nation's major school-administrators' groups have argued against such an interpretation of the 14th Amendment, saying that it would improperly allow students to literally make a "federal case'' out of issues that should be tried in state courts. The framers of the amendment, they contend, did not intend such a result.

Abusive Parent

In the DeShaney case, the Court agreed to consider reinstating a suit against a Wisconsin county child-protective service filed on behalf of a 9-year-old boy who was beaten so severely by his father that he was permanently brain-damaged and will be institutionalized for life.

The case began in 1980 when Joshua DeShaney's parents divorced and his father was awarded custody. The boy first came to the attention of the social-service agency in 1983 when his father's girlfriend brought him to a hospital "covered with bruises and abrasions.''

The agency determined at that time that there was insufficient evidence to support a child-abuse charge, and returned Joshua to his father. It stipulated, however, that Joshua be enrolled in a Head Start program, that the father obtain counseling, and that the girlfriend be removed from the household. A caseworker was also assigned to monitor the situation.

Over the next several months, Joshua was frequently brought back to the hospital and treated for a variety of suspicious injuries. The agency was also informed that his father had not complied with the agreement under which the boy was returned to him. But for reasons that have never been fully explained, it failed to take any action.

The situation reached a crisis point in early March 1984, when Joshua, then 4 years old, was brought to the hospital in a deep coma and with "extensive old bruising and discoloration over all parts of his body.'' Emergency brain surgery also revealed evidence "of brain damage and physical trauma to the skull over a long period of time.''

Suit Filed

Mr. DeShaney was convicted of child abuse and sentenced to two to four years in prison. Joshua's mother, who lives in Wyoming, then filed suit on her son's behalf against the social-service agency, charging that its failure to take steps to protect him from his father deprived the boy of "liberty'' under the 14th Amendment.

A federal district court dismissed the case without holding a trial, and a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the decision in February 1987.

"It is unlikely that [the caseworker's] well-intentioned but ineffectual intervention did Joshua any good at all, but it is most unlikely that it did him any harm,'' the appellate court held. "She merely failed to protect him from his bestial father.''

The court reasoned that in order to support a claim of a violation of substantive due process, a plaintiff must demonstrate "deprivation'' of a right "and not merely a failure to protect the plaintiff from a danger created by others.''

"That the state's inaction may have brought about a trivial increase in the probability that Joshua would be severely injured by his father does not enable a conclusion that the state deprived Joshua of his right to bodily integrity,'' it concluded.

Corporal Punishment

The corporal-punishment case that the Court declined to review began in February 1982 when Theresa Miera, the principal of Penasco Elementary School in Penasco, N.M., summoned Teresa Garcia, then a 9-year-old 3rd grader, to her office for hitting a boy who had kicked her.

According to testimony disputed by the principal but accepted as true by the appellate court, Ms. Miera instructed Teresa to go to a chair to be paddled. The girl reportedly refused, telling Ms. Miera that her father had said that the principal "had better shape up.''

Ms. Miera responded by summoning a male teacher to her office, who was instructed to hold Teresa upside down by her ankles while the principal struck the girl five times on the front of the legs with a paddle.

After the punishment, Teresa's teacher noticed blood coming through the girl's clothes. She took her to a restroom and discovered a welt and a two-inch cut, which left a permanent scar.

The second paddling occurred in May 1983 when the principal summoned Teresa to her office for telling other students that her teacher had been seen kissing a student's father on a school bus during a field trip and that the teacher had sent love letters to the father through his son.

Ms. Miera then struck Teresa twice on the buttocks with a paddle. When the girl refused to be hit again, the principal called for an administrative assistant, who pushed the girl toward a chair she was to bend over. During the struggle, the girl hit her back on a desk, causing a back injury that lasted several weeks.

Teresa then submitted to three additional blows, which caused severe bruises, according to court documents.

A nurse who later examined Teresa testified that if a child had received such an injury at home she "would have called [the police department's] protective services.''

Teresa's parents subsequently filed suit against Ms. Miera and others involved in the girl's punishments, charging that their actions violated her 14th Amendment right to liberty.

A federal district judge dismissed the suit without holding a trial, finding that the officials enjoyed good-faith immunity from prosecution because the "law governing whether excess corporal punishment can give rise to a substantive due-process claim is not clearly established.''

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit reversed that decision in April 1987.

Ingraham Decision

The appeals court based its decision largely on Ingraham v. Wright, the Supreme Court's only decision to date on corporal punishment in the schools.

In Ingraham, the Court held in 1977 that the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments did not apply to student paddling. It also found that although such action implicates the procedural aspects of the 14th Amendment's due-process clause, informal common-law remedies are sufficient to safeguard those interests.

In reaching its decision in Ingraham, the Court specifically declined to rule on whether corporal punishment could ever give rise to a substantive due-process claim. Nevertheless, the 10th Circuit Court found that the decision as a whole required it "to hold that, at some point, excessive corporal punishment'' violates such rights.

"Although Ingraham makes clear that ordinary corporal punishment violates no substantive due-process rights of schoolchildren,'' the court ruled, "by acknowledging that corporal punishment implicates a fundamental liberty interest protected by the due-process clause, we believe that opinion clearly signaled that, at some degree of excessiveness or cruelty, the meting out of such punishment violates the substantive due-process rights of the pupil.''

The case now returns to the federal district court for additional proceedings. The 10th Circuit Court's decision is binding in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming.

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