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Justice for Jessica: Holding the U.S. Accountable for Protecting Domestic Violence Survivors

Lenora M. Lapidus,
Former Director,
Women's Rights Project, ACLU
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October 27, 2014

It has been 15 years since the tragic deaths of Jessica Lenahan’s three daughters.

On June 22, 1999, Jessica’s estranged husband, Simon Gonzales, kidnapped Rebecca, Katheryn, and Leslie from their front yard, in violation of a domestic violence order of protection. As soon as Jessica realized the girls were gone, she contacted the Castle Rock, Colorado, police and told them she suspected Simon had taken them. She requested the police try to find him and bring the girls home. Over the next 10 hours, Jessica repeatedly contacted the police by phone and in person. Yet, each time the police responded that there was nothing they could do and told her to call back later if the children hadn’t come home.

Finally, at 3:30am Simon drove up to the police station and started shooting. The police fired back, killing him. When the shooting stopped the police approached the truck and found the bodies of the three girls who had been killed.

The girls may have been killed by Simon with a gun he purchased that afternoon, during the time that Jessica had been seeking police assistance. It is also possible the girls were killed by the barrage of bullets the police shot at Simon and his truck. Certainly their bodies were riddled with bullet wounds. However, because the Castle Rock Police Department never conducted a thorough investigation, Jessica to this day doesn’t know the exact time, place, or manner of the deaths of her daughters.

Three years ago, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a landmark decision finding that the US had violated Jessica Lenahan’s human rights, by failing to take adequate steps to protect Jessica and her daughters from domestic violence. The commission made several recommendations to address those violations.

These recommendations included:

  • An investigation into the cause, time, and place of death of the girls
  • An investigation into the systemic failures that took place with regard to enforcing Jessica’s order of protection
  • Compensation to Jessica and her family

The commission also recommended that the government enact federal and state legislative changes, and adopt institutional and policy reform to ensure protection from domestic violence. To date, the government has not complied with those recommendations.

Today, the commission is holding a public hearing to address the government’s failure to implement its recommendations. The federal government should work with officials in Colorado to conduct a thorough investigation into the deaths of the Gonzales children, as well as the procedures the Castle Rock Police Department followed on the night the children were killed, and the policies currently in place to enforce domestic violence orders of protection. The government should issue a formal apology and provide compensation to Jessica and her family.

We also call on the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to issue guidance to all police departments about their obligations in responding to domestic violence survivors and eliminating gender-biased practices. DOJ has recently investigated and resolved charges against several police departments for discriminatory practices, including their responses to domestic and sexual violence. Guidance to all law enforcement could build on these investigations and go a long way toward ensuring proper procedures to address gender-based violence.

The government must also incorporate human rights standards into its efforts, so that it not only responds after violence has occurred, but takes adequate steps to prevent violence in the first place. The ACLU, along with the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School and the Human Rights Clinic at University of Miami School, recently released a new resource to aid this process. Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault in the U.S.: A Human Rights Based Approach & Practice Guide recommends various ways that the government could integrate human rights principles into its policies and programs, ensuring a focus on prevention and accountability and emphasizing survivor dignity, effective investigations and greater transparency. These include providing training and education on human rights standards to staff and incorporating human rights principles into grant applications and agreements relating to gender-based violence.

Last month, on the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, President Obama issued a Presidential Proclamation affirming, “the basic human right to be free from violence and abuse.” Acknowledging that freedom from violence is a human right is a critical step. Now, the government must turn those words into action.

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