The following (true) story is from a Supreme Court decision, DeShaney v. Winnebago (489 U.S. 189, 1989). In the case, DeShaney’s mother sued the county and state for failing to intervene.
Joshua DeShaney’s Story
Joshua DeShaney was born in 1979. In 1980, a Wyoming court granted his parents a divorce and awarded custody of Joshua to his father, Randy DeShaney. The father shortly thereafter moved to Neenah, a city located in Winnebago County, Wisconsin, taking the infant Joshua with him. There he entered into a second marriage, which also ended in divorce.
The Winnebago County authorities first learned that Joshua DeShaney might be a victim of child abuse in January 1982, when his father’s second wife complained to the police, at the time of their divorce, that he had previously “hit the boy causing marks and [was] a prime case for child abuse.” The Winnebago County Department of Social Services (DSS) interviewed the father, but he denied the accusations, and DSS did not pursue them further. In January 1983, Joshua was admitted to a local hospital with multiple bruises and abrasions. The examining physician suspected child abuse and notified DSS, which immediately obtained an order from a Wisconsin juvenile court placing Joshua in the temporary custody of the hospital. Three days later, the county convened an ad hoc “Child Protection Team” — consisting of a pediatrician, a psychologist, a police detective, the county’s lawyer, several DSS caseworkers, and various hospital personnel — to consider Joshua’s situation. At this meeting, the Team decided that there was insufficient evidence of child abuse to retain Joshua in the custody of the court. The Team did, however, decide to recommend several measures to protect Joshua, including enrolling him in a preschool program, providing his father with certain counseling services, and encouraging his father’s girlfriend to move out of the home. Randy DeShaney entered into a voluntary agreement with DSS in which he promised to cooperate with them in accomplishing these goals.
Based on the recommendation of the Child Protection Team, the juvenile court dismissed the child protection case and returned Joshua to the custody of his father. A month later, emergency room personnel called the DSS caseworker handling Joshua’s case to report that he had once again been treated for suspicious injuries. The caseworker concluded that there was no basis for action. For the next six months, the caseworker made monthly visits to the DeShaney home, during which she observed a number of suspicious injuries on Joshua’s head; she also noticed that he had not been enrolled in school, and that the girlfriend had not moved out. The caseworker dutifully recorded these incidents in her files, along with her continuing suspicions that someone in the DeShaney household was physically abusing Joshua, but she did nothing more. In November 1983, the emergency room notified DSS that Joshua had been treated once again for injuries that they believed to be caused by child abuse. On the caseworker’s next two visits to the DeShaney home, she was told that Joshua was too ill to see her. Still DSS took no action.
In March 1984, Randy DeShaney beat 4-year-old Joshua so severely that he fell into a life-threatening coma. Emergency brain surgery revealed a series of hemorrhages caused by traumatic injuries to the head inflicted over a long period of time. Joshua did not die, but he suffered brain damage so severe that he is expected to spend the rest of his life confined to an institution for the profoundly retarded. Randy DeShaney was subsequently tried and convicted of child abuse.
- Assuming that we all have rights to life and liberty, on whom does that create a corresponding duty to protect them?
- How strong is the causal link between Joshua’s injuries and the county’s inaction? Does the strength of this link matter to the county’s moral obligation (or non-obligation)?
- To what extent do ordinary citizens have an obligation to report suspected child abuse? To whom would they make such a report? How would they decide what constitutes child abuse?
- Since the county in Wisconsin had established a child care services program, does the existence of that program create and new moral obligations on the county’s part?
- Whose job is it to represent a child’s interests? The parents? The government? Somebody else?
- To what extent are parenting decisions “private” matters, outside of government jurisdiction?
- What sort of interest does government have in the ways children are raised? Come up with some other examples for discussion.
- How, in general, might one say that a certain activity is private, and immune to public scrutiny?
- To what extent is “privacy” morally acceptable? Try to come up with both some pro and con arguments, and some examples both ways.