The Supreme Court, acting in the case of a 4-year-old boy who was severely beaten by his father, ruled Wednesday that governments and their employees have no duty under the Constitution to protect citizens from danger or to intervene to save their lives.
Although calling the case "undeniably tragic," the high court said that county welfare officials in Wisconsin could not be sued for violating the rights of Joshua DeShaney, who was under their supervision at the time of the beating that left him severely brain-damaged.
Not a Violation
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the 6-3 conservative court majority, said: "A state's failure to protect an individual against private violence simply does not constitute a violation" of the 14th Amendment.
The high court ruling frees child care workers, police officers and other public employees from potentially huge liability; but it leaves few remedies for the citizen who is injured through government negligence, except to seek damages under state law. Some states, including California, permit damage suits against government employees, but many do not.
The DeShaney case, one of the most intensely watched cases of the term, presented the justices with an extraordinarily stark choice about the meaning of the Constitution.
The stakes were high, as the many court briefs attest.
Child care advocates had urged the justices to permit federal damage suits as a way to force local agencies to act more quickly to save abused children. But state and local officials, joined last year by the Ronald Reagan Administration, urged the justices to bar such suits, fearing a deluge of multimillion-dollar damage claims.
As early as January, 1982, Winnebago County, Wis., officials had received reports that Randy DeShaney was abusing his infant son, Joshua. A team was formed to monitor the case and visit the DeShaney home monthly. Soon after, numerous signs of abuse were observed.
Joshua was taken to a hospital with cuts and bumps, allegedly caused by a fall. On another visit, his face appeared to have been burned with a cigarette. Still later, the child care worker visiting the DeShaney home was told that Joshua was suffering fainting spells.
Finally, in March, 1984, Melody DeShaney, who was divorced from DeShaney and living in Wyoming, received a call from a Winnebago County official who reported that her son was undergoing brain surgery to save his life.
Although Joshua survived, he suffered severe brain damage and now lives in a Wisconsin foster home.
The mother sued the county social services department and several social workers in federal court, contending that "gross negligence" by the child care workers amounted to a violation of the boy's civil rights. The suit, which sought money for the child's support, was based on the 14th Amendment, which says that no state may "deprive any person of life (or) liberty without due process of law."
A judge in Milwaukee dismissed the suit, as did an appeals court in Chicago. But, last year, after a series of highly publicized child abuse cases, including the beating death of Lisa Steinberg in New York City, the justices agreed to consider the issue.
Although public officials may be sued for denying the right to free speech or breaking down doors without a search warrant, they may not be sued for failing to act, he said.
Because the Constitution imposes no "affirmative obligation" on states or counties to provide services to citizens or to protect them from harm, "it follows that the state cannot be held liable . . . for injuries that could have been averted," Rehnquist concluded in the case (DeShaney vs. Winnebago County, 87-154).
Three liberal members of the court--Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall and Harry A. Blackmun--strongly dissented. They argued that, in some special situations, including instances in which a county agency's legal responsibility is to monitor child abuse and it has much evidence that a child is in "grave danger," employees have a duty to act.
"Poor Joshua!" Blackmun added. "Victim of repeated attacks by an irresponsible, bullying, cowardly and intemperate father and abandoned by (county workers) who placed him in a dangerous predicament and who knew or learned what was going on, yet did essentially nothing except . . . dutifully record these incidents in their files."
Randy DeShaney was convicted of felony child abuse and served two years in prison.
Several federal courts recently had upheld suits similar to Joshua's. Last August, an appeals court in San Francisco ruled that an abused woman who got a restraining order to stop her ex-husband from harassing her could sue the police department because it did nothing to protect her.
An appeals court in Philadelphia upheld a federal damage suit against a school principal who chose to do nothing to protect female students from being sexually abused by a male teacher.
Rehnquist said that all those suits belong in state courts. "A state may, through its courts and legislature, impose such affirmative duties and protection upon its agents as it sees fit," he wrote.
California has paid damage claims of more than $2 million for catastrophic accidents in which a state agency or official was deemed negligent, said Richard Martland, chief assistant attorney general.