Can the Government Protect Children from Abuse and Neglect?

Supreme Court Cases Move Cases from the Federal to State Level


Methodist Children’s Home photo

The 5 Protective Factors for preventing the risk of child abuse.

Harmony Montgomery has not been seen for two years, yet an investigation into her disappearance just recently launched. Just seven years old, Montgomery’s parents are divorced, and a grey line stands between which parent saw her last and who is responsible for her concerning disappearance. A question stands in many cases similar to Harmony’s: can the government get involved?

A Landmark Supreme Court case with similar concerns is that of the 1989 DeShaney v. Winnebago County Social Services trial. Four-year-old Joshua DeShaney lived with his father in Neenah, Wisconsin, where he was being physically abused. The State Department of Social Services took custody of DeShaney at one point but returned him just three days later. He was hospitialized with bruises all over his body and had severe brain damage. Joshua became permanently paralyzed and mentally disabled because of this altercation. According to “10 Supreme Court Cases Every Teen Should Know” By Tom Jacobs, DesShaney’s father was convicted of child abuse and sent to prison. 

His mother sued the Department of Social Services for returning her child to his father, arguing that the department had the duty to protect her son under the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids the state from depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”. 

The court ruled against Joshua and his mother, essentially saying that the Constitution does not protect children from their parents and therefore the government is not at fault in Joshua’s abuse. The Supreme Court has consistently respected parents’ rights to discipline children. Even though the government isn’t required under the Constitution to protect children, all states assume this responsibility though child protection laws. The Supreme Court generally defers to state and local governments to enforce these laws and intervene in situations where child abuse occurs or other concerns are raised.

At Triton High School, any form of abuse, signs of neglect, or trouble at home must be reported to administration, a guidance counselor, or social worker. Athletic director Tim Alberts oversees all sports within the school and has to be on the lookout for athletes that may be facing these circumstances. “All teachers and coaches are mandated to report,” said Alberts. Assistant principal Scott Brennan is also a mandated reporter but also someone who hears many if not all of of the reports that are brought to attention within Triton. 

“Sorry to say that it happens all the time, every year there is something,” said Brennan. “It happens more than you think.”  This aspect is not seen regularly by Triton students, rather something kept private and within the offices of guidance and administration. 

Several laws stand in every state when referring to child abuse and neglect. When a state fails to complete these duties or they are not enforced, the federal government gets blamed. Children suffer as a result, even sustain life altering injuries like Joshua DeShaney. NPR states “The numbers are grim. Almost 680,000 children in the United States were the victims of abuse and neglect in 2013. More than 1,500 of them died.” This does not include the thousands of other child abuse cases that are not ever reported. The cases that especially result in death are often not disclosed as required by law. This lack of information leads to further systematic issues. 

The state of New Hampshire let the case of Harmony Montgomery fly under the radar for two years, leaving her parents and citizens wondering where she is. This tricky case involves many factors, yet if brought to the Supreme Court, the government cannot use the Constitution to protect Montgomery and the fate of her life. The FBI is now involved in the case, adding several search efforts to finding the 7 year old who was just 5 when reportedly last seen. 

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act enacted in 1974 provides grants to states for child abuse and neglect programs that meet certain federal standards while the Social Security Act established federal child welfare oversight of state welfare policies and practices by the Department of Health and Human Services, including the collection of child welfare statistics and the administration of child welfare information systems. Both of these laws are headed by the federal government and are enacted within state governments, not enforced at the federal level. 

Rebecca Bibeau, the Triton High School Adjustment Counselor and vital part of the Reach Program hears reports and must then go to the Department of Family and Child Services in which they make the official report and investigation. She states that there should be more accountability at the federal level in child abuse and neglect cases. 

“I believe that parents need to get support and rehabilitation and there needs to be extensive training for them to be able to slowly accumulate back with their child, as well as educational support in how this is affecting their child and their future relationships,” said Bibeau.  

Child abuse is something that often flies under the radar but when it is reported must go to the state level. The government insists these issues are not protected by the Constitution which has created turmoil and Supreme Court level cases. Students often don’t see these circumstances at Triton High School but they are prevalent and heard. 


Work Cited

  1. Marnin, Julia. “Dad of Girl Missing for 2 Years Arrested.”, 7 Jan. 2022,  
  2. Fessler, Pam. “Child Abuse and Neglect Laws Aren’t Being Enforced, Report Finds.” NPR, NPR, 27 Jan. 2015,  
  3.  Taylor, Daniel. “What Do Federal Child Abuse Laws Say? 3 Things You Should Know.” FindLaw, 21 Mar. 2019,