A series of savage beatings by his father, who had obtained custody after a divorce and whose history of abuse had been reported to the local child welfare authorities to no avail, left Joshua comatose and permanently brain damaged at the age of 4.... His biological mother, acting on his behalf, sued the Winnebago County, Wis., Department of Social Services for depriving Joshua of the “liberty” protected by the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court’s rejection of that claim, in a 1989 opinion written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, provoked Justice Harry A. Blackmun to exclaim in dissent: “Poor Joshua!”...I had not noticed that Joshua DeShaney (later Joshua Braam) had died last November, here in Wisconsin. A very sad story. The Supreme Court was put in the position of having to decide when we can properly say that the government has deprived a person of liberty without due process. The terrible harm came from his father, and while we can all look back and wish that social services had stepped in sooner, the Court wouldn't see a rights violation in the failure to intervene. Poor Joshua lived to be 36.
For readers who don’t know the case, I’ll describe it here both because it continues to define an important part of our constitutional landscape and because, as the seasonal remembrances wind down, Joshua DeShaney Braam’s unsought role in a Supreme Court decision that limited government’s obligation to its citizens shouldn’t go unmarked.....
“That the state once took temporary custody of Joshua does not alter the analysis,” Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote, “for when it returned him to his father’s custody, it placed him in no worse position than that in which he would have been had it not acted at all; the state does not become the permanent guarantor of an individual’s safety by having once offered him shelter.”
Justice Blackmun's 2-word outcry "Poor Joshua!" is a famous peak in judicial empathy.