Vol. 17 No.6 (June, 2007) pp.455-457
THE DESHANEY CASE: CHILD ABUSE, FAMILY RIGHTS, AND THE DILEMMA OF STATE INTERVENTION, by Lynne Curry. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2007. 176pp. Cloth. $29.95. ISBN: 9780700614967. Paper. $15.95. ISBN: 9780700614974.
Reviewed by Kate Greene, Department of Political Science, University of Southern Mississippi. Email: kate.greene [at] usm.edu.
Lynne Curry’s THE DESHANEY CASE: CHILD ABUSE, FAMILY RIGHTS AND THE DILEMMA OF STATE INTERVENTION is part of the University Press of Kansas Series LANDMARK LAW CASES AND AMERICAN SOCIETY. This series explores important legal cases from the trial of Anne Hutchinson to the Slaughterhouse Cases, the trials of Nazi Saboteurs, and the affirmative action case of Allan Bakke, as well the Supreme Court case of Joshua DeShaney. These short, concise books seek to put a social, political, and historical context to important legal cases. If this book is typical of the series, then it is an excellent series indeed.
Joshua DeShaney was four years old when he was brought into the Mercy Hospital in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, unconscious from a head trauma. His injuries, which doctors soon discovered were not the result of one event, left half his brain permanently destroyed and his body partially paralyzed. Joshua and his family (his father, his father’s former sister-in-law, and her son) had been under the voluntary supervision of the local child protective worker for over a year due to suspicions regarding previous injuries Joshua had sustained. Eventually Joshua’s father Randy was arrested and charged with felony child abuse. He was later convicted of the charges. Meanwhile, Joshua’s mother, who had given up custody of Joshua to his father so that he could have “a nice kid life,” filed a civil action against the child protective worker, her supervisor and the Wisconsin Department of Social Services and its representative authorities. Rather than simply suing under state tort law, since the Wisconsin law limited the amount of such awards and would not provide enough money for Joshua’s care, the case was brought as a federal constitutional challenge, alleging that the state had been negligent and had violated Joshua’s due process rights to life (the life he had before his injuries) and his right to liberty (the right to move about physically and to exercise autonomy when he reached adulthood) (p.89). These constitutional claims were novel and controversial and would eventually reach the Supreme Court of the United States.
DESHANEY v. WINNEBAGO COUNTY, certainly one of the most emotionally-laden cases decided by the Supreme Court, received a great deal of attention and criticism from legal scholars and was a wake-up call for state social service agencies. This book examines not just the legal, but also the familial, social, political and historical contexts of Joshua DeShaney’s life and court case. It is a book which, as the [*456] series editors note, “we cannot put down, nor should we” (p.x). I could not put it down and read its 160 pages in one sitting, skipping my dinner and THE DAILY SHOW in order to finish it.
Lynne Curry has written a book that will invoke pain, sadness, anger, and frustration as well as enlighten and inform the reader with its confrontation with child abuse, bureaucracy, the public/private split, the legal system and constitutional law and politics. Using social work case files, medical testimony, legal depositions, police reports, media coverage, oral histories and legal briefs and opinions, she pieces together the story of Joshua DeShaney and his family with the history of social work and its approach to child abuse, the criminal and civil legal processes, and the politics of Supreme Court decisionmaking. Though Curry is an historian, this book will be of interest to child abuse activists, legal scholars and students (and teachers) of social work, public administration, and public law, especially those interested in constitutional interpretation and politics, but those who study the judicial process as well.
Curry begins with Joshua’s story. In this chapter, we meet the major players at the local level. Curry’s narrative is objective, yet direct and honest. Without giving us too much detail, we learn the story of Joshua and his parents, the social/child protective worker handling his case, the local police and the doctors and nurses involved. This is followed by a chapter on the history of social work in the United States and in particular the child abuse aspect of social work. Here we learn of the conflict faced by social workers who must confront a professional conflict between family maintenance (to keep children out of the failed foster care system) and the protection of abused children. The next chapter follows Randy DeShaney’s experience with the criminal justice system alongside an analysis of the development of criminal child abuse law in the US. We next encounter the lower ranks of the federal court system and the constitutional issues and arguments made in Joshua’s civil suit. All the relevant legal players (lawyers and judges) are introduced, and the legal processes and constitutional issues and approaches are well explained.
The chapter on the case before the Supreme Court is complete and powerful. With the legal issues already laid out, explained and argued, Curry takes us into the realm of constitutional interpretation and Supreme Court decisionmaking. She includes a discussion of the legal briefs presented to the Court, takes us to the oral arguments (one of the most interesting parts of the book), and finally explains the opinion writing process for the Court. Because the issues and constitutional law are so well explained in the earlier chapter, the reader needs little assistance understanding the Court’s opinions (both majority and dissenting). Curry concludes the book with an examination of the scholarly legal critiques of the decision and the impact the whole case had on child abuse law and approaches to child protective services. She also highlights what this case can teach policymakers so they can improve these services. [*457]
This is a book designed for students and non-academics. There are no footnotes, but an excellent bibliographic essay is included at the end, and it would be a highly usable text for courses in family law, family violence, judicial process, constitutional law, social work and public administration. I can think of three courses of my own in which I could use this book: Introduction to Law in American Society, Constitutional Law, and even Women and Politics. It is well-written and highly readable by even the most reluctant student, and Curry’s explanation and analysis of complex social, political and legal issues is excellent. She takes difficult and complex issues and analyzes them with clarity and completeness. Those with little knowledge of these areas will come away with a clear understanding of the material, and those already possessing some knowledge will come away with a greater feel for the interrelationships of the familial, social, political and legal aspects of this complex reality in which Joshua and all of us live.
From my scholarly chair, there is nothing wrong with this book. From my front porch swing, Curry is too kind in her critique of some of the players, but in particular, the child protective worker. The worker went to Joshua’s home the day before he appeared at the hospital with his final injuries, but rather than actually see Joshua, whom she had been told had had another “accident,” had fainted recently and was sleeping, she spent her time during this visit in a friendly encounter helping the other members of the family prepare for a birthday celebration. It is one thing to have such a heavy caseload that she could not visit the family and then for Joshua to turn up at the hospital, and another to actually visit the home and fail to physically observe the child under her care.
In conclusion, I must borrow from Justice Blackmun’s dissent in DESHANEY: “Poor Joshua.” His father is out of jail, his protective worker is retired and at peace with herself, and their lives go on. Joshua lives today, mentally impaired and paralyzed, in an adult care facility in Wisconsin. I can only hope that this excellent book will be read by many people and that the lessons that can be learned from this story and legal case will be used to make this world a better place for all of us. It is too late for Joshua. Maybe it is not too late for some other young child. Those of us who believe the state has an obligation to protect all its citizens, young, old and every age in-between, know that obligation can be met. The question remains when we as a society will actually choose to truly care about each other.
DESHANEY v. WINNEBAGO COUNTY, 489 U.S. 189 (1989).
© Copyright 2007 by the author, Kate Greene.
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