The Torment of Injustice

TW: Physical and Sexual Abuse, Trauma

In March of 1984, 4-year-old Joshua DeShaney was beaten so severely by his father that he became “profoundly retarded” with little to no cognitive function. Four years before the incident, right after Joshua was born, his father, Randy DeShaney, and mother, Melody DeShaney filed a divorce in order to put an end to what was an extremely toxic relationship. After the divorce, custody of Joshua was originally granted to his mother, but after realizing she was “not mature enough to raise a child”, she waived off all legal custody to Joshua’s father. 

The severity and duration of Joshua’s abuse are not entirely clear, but what is known that two years after Melody DeShaney waived off custody of Joshua to Randy DeShaney, Joshua was sent to the emergency room with numerous cuts and bruises around his body, specifically on and around the area of his genitals and buttocks. Despite the disturbing nature of Joshua’s injuries, social workers only withheld custody of Joshua for three days before returning him to his father under certain provisions meant to protect Joshua from further harm. 

Upon returning Joshua to his father’s custody, social workers visited Randy DeShany’s home seven times to check for child abuse. On the first five visits, a social worker recorded a “suspicion of child abuse” and that Randy DeShaney “was not complying with the agreement’s terms”, even with these reports, no action was taken by the social service department. On the final two visits, both three months before the final, devastating beating of Joshua, social workers were told that Joshua “had the flu” and could not be seen. 

Finally, in March of 1984, Joshua’s aunt brought him to a hospital where it was revealed that “Randy DeShaney [had] beat 4-year-old Joshua so bad that he fell into a life-threatening coma”. Half of Joshua’s brain was physically destroyed. As a result of his haunting injuries, Joshua was left with almost no cognitive function and had to spend the rest of his life “confined in a mental institution for the profoundly mentally disabled”.

An image of a young Joshua DeShaney.
Source: https://slideplayer.com/slide/15782384/

Once Melody finally found out about Joshua’s abuse, she filed a lawsuit on his behalf against Winnebago County for failing to protect him against his father’s abuse, thereby violating his right to liberty under the due process clause granted to him by the fourteenth amendment.

The court was given a chance for an open interpretation of the due process clause, essentially answering the question: Does the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment guarantee protection from state inaction in the face of laws broken by private hands?

To help answer this question, it is important to look at SCOTUS cases where the fourteenth amendment and its clauses have been interpreted differently.

The fourteenth amendment was written and ratified by postbellum lawmakers with the intent of protecting not just African Americans from state discrimination, but all people. Since then, and the fourteenth amendment has evolved into a legal doctrine that has acted as the crucial key for the civil rights movement, becoming the legal basis for monumental rulings such as the ones in Brown v. Board and Obergefell v. Hodges.

In one of my least favorite SCOTUS decisions ever, the court ruled 6-3 in favor of Winnebago County, under the interpretation that the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment only protects individuals from direct state action. In the court’s opinion, Chief Justice Rehnquist held that since Joshua was abused by a private individual, his father Randy DeShaney, that a state actor, in this case, the Winnebago County Department of Social Services, was not responsible.

In one of the most passionate dissents in SCOTUS history, Justice Blackmun famously opined “Poor Joshua!”, and advocated for a fundamental change in the legal and moral philosophy of judges. Blackmun claimed that justices should adopt a more “sympathetic reading” of court cases, and that “compassion should not be exiled from the province of judging”. Perhaps the most powerful segment of Justice Blackmun’s dissent was his conclusion, where he observed that “it is a sad commentary upon American life, and constitutional principles — so full of patriotic fervor and proud proclamations about ‘liberty and justice for all,’ that this child, Joshua DeShaney, now is assigned to live out the remainder of his life profoundly retarded.”

Supreme Court Justice Blackmun
Source: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Harry-A-Blackmun

I concur with Justice Blackmun and disagree with the ruling from a legal and moral standpoint. The court was given a chance for an open interpretation of the due process clause, essentially answering the question: Does the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment guarantee protection from state inaction in the face of laws broken by private hands, including but not limited to, individuals, institutions, corporations, and schools?

To help answer this question, it is important to look at SCOTUS cases where the fourteenth amendment and its clauses have been interpreted differently.

The fourteenth amendment was written and ratified by postbellum lawmakers with the intent of protecting not just African Americans from state discrimination, but all people. Since then, and the fourteenth amendment has evolved into a legal doctrine that has acted as the crucial key for the civil rights movement, becoming the legal basis for monumental rulings such as the ones in Brown v. Board and Obergefell v. Hodges.

Both Brown and Obergefell had very different, unprecedented interpretations of the fourteenth amendment as they expanded the rights granted by the amendment (such as the equal protection and due process clauses) to protect against state discrimination in the form of segregation against people of color and in marriage bans against homosexual couples. 

Going back to DeShaney, I believe that state inaction in the face of obvious violence or discrimination, committed by private individuals, can be just as immoral as direct state violence and discrimination. So yes, I believe that the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment should be expanded to guarantee every American protection from state inaction in the face of violence or discrimination. 

My decision comes from the fact that all of us are aware that the state should be held responsible to a certain degree for grossly ignoring the brutality of Joshua’s abuse, due to the fact it was the social department’s duty to protect children from abusive families. The court had an opportunity to set the legal guidelines of when the state could be held liable for inaction but has instead decided to do nothing. More importantly, the court had an opportunity to deliver a just decision for Joshua’s sake but decided to protect public entities from being held liable for their negligence instead.

Title Image: (icedmocha / Shutterstock)

About the author

Damjan Nastic

Hello, and welcome to my blog! I'm Damjan Nastic, an economics major aspiring to encourage democratic participation amongst my fellow students through this page. I hope my page can offer a different perspective on pressing issues throughout the world.

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