Court: No Government Duty To Keep Citizens From Harm

March 01, 1989 1 min read

Washington--A Wisconsin social-service agency did not violate a boy’s constitutional rights by failing to protect him from his abusive father, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week.

In a 6-to-3 decision, the Court’s majority held that the 14th Amendment’s requirement that persons not be deprived of “liberty” without due process of law imposes no duty on government to protect the public against harm.

The due-process clause “is phrased as a limitation on the state’s power to act, not as a guarantee of certain minimal levels of safety and security,” wrote Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist for the Court. ''Its purpose was to protect the people from the state, not to ensure that the state protected them from each other.”

In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr. argued that by creating a4child-protection agency “the state actively intervened” in the boy’s life and thus had a constitutional duty to protect him.

“My disagreement with the Court arises from its failure to see that inaction can be every bit as abusive of power as action, that oppression can result when a state undertakes a vital duty and then ignores it,” he wrote.

The case, DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services (Case No. 87-154), involves charges that the agency was aware that a young boy was being abused by his divorced father but failed to remove him from the home. The boy eventually was beaten so severely that he suffered irreversible brain damage and will be institutionalized for life.

Federal district and appeals courts both ruled in favor of the department, which was sued by the boy’s mother.--tm

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1989 edition of Education Week as Court: No Government Duty To Keep Citizens From Harm