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

I'm sorry for all the women who have been in abusive relationships, raped, verbally abused, etc.
I do hope we, as women can come together to support each other, stop criticizing and giving lectures on how they would handle the situation.
Nobody knows how they will react, how it will affect them until they are living it.
Let's not preach, instead let's share resources, lend a hand, be kind, listen to their pain.

Anonymous

I'm sorry for all the women who have been in abusive relationships, raped, verbally abused, etc.
I do hope we, as women can come together to support each other, stop criticizing and giving lectures on how they would handle the situation.
Nobody knows how they will react, how it will affect them until they are living it.
Let's not preach, instead let's share resources, lend a hand, be kind, listen to their pain.

Tracey Smith

Just watched Jessica's Story on Investigation Discovery. I was appalled at the way the police treated Jessica. I call that discriminatory abuse by the Police. And then to be refused justice at the supreme court level is almost unbelievable. The Police force should have been charged with failing to protect and accessories to the death of 3 beautiful little girls.
Regardless of how a person(women) presents at the time of their report...of a lunatic that kidnapped your kids...the Police should always investigate immediately. To think if one of those ass holes had of spent 3 minutes to read the file. Jessica would be enjoying life with her daughters. Three minutes. Heart broken here in Canada...but glad your kicking ass and changing the law. Huggs. Jessica ♡ Trace

LINDSAY SUNDQUIST

Today my abuser goes to pretrial that of which I was never contacted about our domestic battery case nor have I been subpoenaed. Two years hospitalized three times all of which an officer was present in signing me out 0ver a hundred calls restraining ing order not granted and no arrest until the urgency of a stranger from the road witnessed my attack. He was let out on a 500 dollar bond and are telling me I was never hospitalized even though my records from the hospital state that I was there. They arrested me 5 times for trespassing at my own home after I was beatin and they were called. I once was drug home by him covered in kerosene where his friend called police in fear of my life and I was arrested and my car from which he dragged me from 3 miles away was towed not even minutes later it was not even in an area where it needed to be called in. During this time the state granted my children to be adopted due to abandonment.. I would never abandon my children they put them in foster care with no allegations of abuse or being unfit only stating I did not check in I lived with my children elsewhere prior full time with my ten year old and 50 50 with my son my mother an addict had taken then and I had called police warning them she took them to ss. Office in Hope's of getting death benefits dispersed the following day I. a total of 240000 dollars from my husband death and I have not seen them sense because she was high on prescription pills and was taken from her and I was never contacted even though I made desperate attempts at knowing what was going on the man in question is a big name in there community. I am not from there and was fighting for my life while he and the sheriffs dept turned my life into a sick game. I ran multiple times of which he would destroy my friends homes and scare and threaten the lives of others. I stopped running after 1 1/2 years because he never would get punished despite the efforts of others and his destruction of their property. Still today I lay here alone with nothing or no one being made into a fool osterisized and shamed. I have multiple videos and witnesses but evidentally that does not matter. Court is in a few hrs and I feel he will be found not guilty and there lives go on and mine is so far beyond repair the trauma and heartache I feel is so unbearable in 2009 my husband died in there jail and I feel it's a personal attack on myself for what sick reason I do not know. One thing is for sure Jessica's story gave me courage to seek justice and fight for my children and I. I didn't nothing to deserve this no I dont have a big status or money to buy my freedom but I have my rights and I'll fight Canyon county sheriff dept in Caldwell Idaho until some sort of justice is made because that is my right and since they dont have big enough balls to give me what there job title required. Than I'll fight for my own justice and the other men and woman who have been let down. these small minded officers who forgot what enforcement of justice meant.

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