Jessica Lenahan Lived Through a Domestic Violence Nightmare and Emerged as a Heroic Advocate for Police Reform

On June 22, 1999, Jessica Lenahan’s estranged husband, Simon Gonzales, kidnapped their three daughters from the front yard in Castle Rock, Colorado, in violation of a domestic violence order of protection. As soon as Jessica realized the girls were gone, she contacted the local police and told them she suspected Simon had taken them. She begged the police to try to find him and bring the girls home.

Over the next 10 hours, Jessica called and met with the police numerous times, seeking their assistance. Yet, each time the police responded that there was nothing they could do — even though Jessica had a restraining order against her husband — and told her to call back later if the children hadn’t come home. At 3:30 a.m., Simon drove up to the police station and started shooting. The police fired back, killing him. When the police looked in the cab of his truck they found the bodies of the three girls who had been killed.

Jessica sued the police and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 2005, the Court held that Jessica had no due process right to enforcement of her restraining order. In an opinion written by Justice Scalia, the court maintained that although Colorado law says that the police “shall” arrest if an order of protection is violated, police always have discretion.

In essence, “shall” does not mean “shall.”

Jessica Lenahan

In most cases, the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of rights. However, neither Jessica nor we were willing to take no for an answer, so the ACLU filed a petition with the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), alleging violations of international human rights law. In August 2011, the IACHR ruled in favor of Jessica, the first time the commission decided a case against the U.S. in favor of a domestic violence survivor. The commission found that the U.S. had violated Jessica and her daughters' human rights by failing to take adequate steps to protect them from domestic violence. The IACHR made several recommendations to address those violations, including urging the government to make changes to laws and policies at the national, state, and local level.

The film  "Home Truth" illustrates Jessica’s transformation from a victim to a client to an advocate for domestic violence survivors.

Having obtained this huge victory, the ACLU and our co-counsel then shifted gears to ensure the commission’s recommendations were implemented. For the next several years, we met with officials in the U.S. State Department, the Department of Justice, and local officials to push for reforms. In December 2015, these efforts paid off when the Justice Department issued a groundbreaking new guidance, “Identifying and Preventing Gender Bias in Law Enforcement Response to Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault,” detailing how police departments should respond to domestic violence to comply with civil rights laws.

Using the IACHR ruling, the ACLU and other advocates also successfully pushed for the adoption of ordinances declaring freedom from domestic violence to be a fundamental human right in cities and counties across the country. Advocates are now using these ordinances to further the anti-violence work they do in their communities. And the decision in Jessica's case has impacted women and girls outside the U.S. as well. For example, the Kenya high court cited it, concluding that police in Kenya had violated the human rights of 12 girls by refusing to investigate their reports of sexual assault and child abuse.

The many developments in Jessica’s decade-plus case and related advocacy are captured vividly in the documentary film, “Home Truth,” which will premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival this weekend. Filmmakers April Hayes and Katia Maguire began filming Jessica and her attorneys nine years ago, documenting our appearances at hearings before the IACHR, meetings with government officials, and presentations at domestic violence and human rights conferences. The film illustrates Jessica’s transformation from a victim to a client to an advocate for domestic violence survivors. And it captures the private side of her suffering and her triumphs, her reactions to the legal and advocacy process, and her relationship with her one surviving son as he, too, struggles with the aftermath of the domestic violence tragedy.

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The film is both a beautiful work of art and a compelling call to action. Just as Jessica refused to remain a helpless victim but instead determined to stand up and fight for justice so too are viewers called to engage and take steps to end gender-based violence.

You can join this effort as well. Step 1: Go see the movie Sunday or Monday night. Step 2: Join the filmmakers, the ACLU, co-counsel, and Jessica in the Impact Campaign that will push for police reform to ensure that no police department stands idly by as a tragedy unfolds in real time. No one should suffer what Jessica Gonzales Lenahan did ever again.

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Anonymous

Terrible tragedy. In the county which I reside domestic abuse charges are typically decided by the police. If you defend yourself you are charged with mutual combat and dcfs is called by the police. All aspects of domestic violence need to be taken seriously to protect, not punish, those at risk

Anonymous

While I'm glad something positive came from this tragedy, women need to be strong. The first time a man abuses you or tries should be the last. Why do women give these men a second chance ??!!

Anonymous

This is victim blaming, kindly do some research before issuing ignorant comments

Anonymous

As a survivor who did get away eventually, you are a worthless ignorant piece of trash.

Anonymous

Seriously, you are reexploiting victims to gloat condescendingly over the ones trapped for one reason or another. People like YOU make it HARDER to get away and get help with your ignorant trash attitude.

Anonymous

How dare you.. So some research before you are so quick to judge. It is arrogant, insulting, ignorant and completely minimizes women. Did you think that there may be a reason that a vast majority of women stay with their abusers? The reason is not because they are any less intelligent than you; lack common sense; are weak. Think this through. We're not speaking of a small and select few that choose to stay. Does that not make you wonder that there may be some psychological aspect to "staying" that perhaps you aren't aware of? I challenge you to research anomalies such as this. allow yourself to be teachable. Ask yourself, could I be missing something here? This doesn't seem to make sense. And I Amy not actually know everything. One in 4 women will be victim to domestic violence in their lifetime. I certainly didn't think I would be among the statistics. Yet here I am. At the age of 50, 3 grown children; an intelligent strong woman, a fighter of justice, a voice - I, my friend am that woman who stayed. I was you. I judged not knowing jack. Don't find out the hard way. Be teachable and learn it on your own. Not from personal experience. And when or if you do, I expect an apology. Because today my life is hell. Without respite. It is a living hell. Encourage rather than shame. Its been my experience, sadly, that woman have been the harshest critics of other women. Domestic violence or rape. It is a lonely place to be when your word is questioned. By everyone.

billy sue

So the aclu is angry at the interpretation of the word "shall" when it pertains to police power, but is okay with no enforcing the law when it applies to others. fascinating. Time to rename the organization.

Anonymous

I can relate alittle. I was raped in 2011 and suffered from ptsd and after having to deal with the humiliation of rehashing the the event numerous times with numerous police and detectives and having embarrasing photos taken just to find out later the D.A. droped the case and charges saying he was mentally ill and was off his meds. So he was not held responsible for his actions and was allowed to b free while i suffered from ptsd flashbacks and night terrors for yrs. He never spent a day in jail. He was only made to spend 2wks in a pysch hosp and put back on meds. The hosp social wkr even called me as she wanted to do a "family session" with him and me bfor discharging him. I told her no that he had raped me and hurt me, and i had pressed charges. I told her him being off his meds was no excuse that he was still responsible for his actions. He knew what he did and i was not going to have a relationship with him anymore as he cud not b trusted. I aplaud what jessica did and is doing. She is truely a survivor and am saddened for the loss of her children and the way the police treated her.

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