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On March 21, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Castle Rock, Colorado v. Gonzales, a case that will determine the accountability of local law enforcement for failing to enforce court orders that protect victims of abuse by a spouse or acquaintance.
The case stems from a lawsuit filed by Jessica Gonzales, who charged that police repeatedly failed to enforce a restraining order against her violent husband, who kidnapped their three young daughters in 1999. The children were killed later that night.
The ACLU Women’s Rights Project, which works regularly to protect the rights of domestic violence survivors, coordinated nine friend-of-the-court briefs on Jessica’s behalf. The ACLU strongly believes that police departments must be held accountable for complying with mandatory arrest laws and enforcing orders of protection.
“Jessica’s case illustrates the critical need for police enforcement of domestic violence orders of protection,” said Lenora Lapidus, Director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “Without systems of accountability in place, women and children are subjected to the whims of local police departments and may suffer grievous harm.”
In 1999, a court granted Jessica Gonzales a protective order barring her estranged husband Simon from contact with her and her three daughters, ages seven, nine and ten. The court order also required the police to enforce its terms by arresting her husband if he violated the order.
Simon abducted the young girls a month after the court order was issued, and Jessica immediately called the police. The police told Jessica there was nothing they could do, and said she should call back if the girls did not turn up. Jessica called the Castle Rock police that night. Eventually she drove to the police station to plead for help in person. The police refused to take action, enforce the court order and help find her children.
Later that night, Jessica’s husband Simon drove up to the police station and opened fire with a gun he had purchased that day. Simon was killed in a gun battle with police. Afterwards, police officers discovered the dead bodies of Jessica’s three daughters in Simon’s truck.
Jessica took a moment to speak with the ACLU about her story and her case.
ACLU: It has been five years since you first filed this lawsuit. This must have been a difficult process for you.
Jessica: It has been a long and difficult process. It’s very hard to try and put your life back together when you’re working on a legal case that stems from the most horrible thing that you-that any mother-could go through. And Castle Rock has certainly not made this easy for me. They have dragged their feet on this, taking every possible extension allowed, and waiting until the last minute before filing briefs.
ACLU: Why put yourself through it all?
Jessica: Because I want to make sure that no parent ever has to go through the pain that I went through. I want to make sure that police are ultimately accountable for doing their jobs. We rely on the courts and the police for protection against violence. A restraining order is the only legal alternative offered for protection against domestic violence. Supposedly, police function is to serve and protect. If the law’s claimed purpose to protect is a fraud, we should know that. If the police will take no action to enforce an order of protection, then women need to know this before we go through the process and make our stalker or abuser even angrier.
ACLU: Do you believe that court orders of protection are a bad idea in a domestic violence situation?
Jessica: In my case, it definitely was. My daughters are dead. But I really believe that they could have been saved if the Castle Rock police actually bothered to enforce the court order. I called the police repeatedly that night. The police knew that I had a restraining order against Simon. It was their department that served him with that order. Orders of protection can only protect you if the police are trained on how to handle these calls and actually take measures to enforce the orders. That’s why I filed this lawsuit.
Jessica: Anything more than what they did, which was nothing. I don’t think they ever took this restraining order seriously. And I don’t think that they take domestic violence seriously. If I had told them that a stranger had taken my daughters, and I gave them the make of his vehicle and I told them where I believed he had taken them-all of which was information I gave them about Simon-then I think the reaction would have been different. But Simon was the girls’ father, and the police saw this as a domestic issue, which was clearly not a priority for them.
ACLU: What have you learned from this experience?
Jessica: I learned that restraining orders are meaningless if the police don’t back them up. I relied on the police to protect my children and me. Castle Rock issued a court order representing that my children and I would be protected from a man who was potentially violent. I believed them. I believed that the police were duty bound to enforce the restraining order and that they would do their best to protect us. I learned from my tragedy that the police had no sense of accountability regarding state law. The safety of my children was of such little consequence that the police took no action to protect my babies. They didn’t even bother to note my descriptions of the vehicle that my children were in.
ACLU: How do you feel now that the Supreme Court is set to rule in your case?
Jessica: I’m anxious. And I’m hopeful. But my case doesn’t end at the Supreme Court. If the Court rules in my favor, then I will prepare my civil case against Castle Rock and attempt to finish what I started by filing this lawsuit in 2000.
ACLU: And if the Court rules against you?
Jessica: I think that would be disastrous for families, and for battered women. That means there is no change and restraining orders remain the way they are. But I would still remain an advocate. I would probably turn to the press to share my story, so that people can learn from my tragedy. I would recommend that any woman who is considering getting a restraining order first find out what her community’s police department’s policy is on enforcing protective orders, and if the department has a domestic violence unit. Without police support, restraining orders are meaningless, and in my case, deadly.
ACLU: Well, let’s hope for the best in your case. As you know, many people are rooting for you. More than a hundred organizations have signed on to briefs with the Court on your behalf.
Jessica: I know! I am overwhelmed with excitement by that kind of support. I never really grasped the full national potential of this case until groups like the ACLU got involved. At first, I thought my case was isolated. While it’s unfortunate that lack of police enforcement is a widespread problem, it gives me hope that the outcome of my case can have a monumental impact on the lives of so many women and families.
ACLU: I understand that you re-married in November. Congratulations.
Jessica: I did. Thank you! He makes me very happy. Finding my husband was such an unexpected gift. I never thought I would be able to trust another man, but he is loving and caring. That would be my message to other women: you can overcome being a victim and turn it into something more positive. The healing process has been a long road for me, and it’s far from over. But I will continue on in that process, and I will continue with my lawsuit so that I can be helpful to other victims, and hopefully help potential victims avoid similar situations.
ACLU: Jessica, thank you for taking the time to talk to us, and thank you for bringing this lawsuit.
Jessica: Thank you.
Look for more on Jessica Gonzales this Sunday on CBS 60 Minutes and next week in People magazine.
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