Domestic Violence Victim Sues U.S. Government for International Human Rights Violations

March 2, 2007 12:00 am

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Mother of Three Slain Girls Finds Domestic Avenues for Justice Closed

Jessica Gonzales v. U.S.A.
> Gonzales’ Statement Before the IACHR
> Press Release (3/2/2007)
> Domestic Violence: Protective Orders and the Role of Police Enforcement (Printable Version)

> Supreme Court: Castle Rock v. Gonzales
> Women’s Rights
> International Rights

NEW YORK – Jessica Gonzales, whose three daughters were kidnapped by her estranged husband and killed, and whose domestic violence protection claims were rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, spoke publicly today for the first time before an adjudicating body, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The American Civil Liberties Union and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic represented Gonzales.

“I brought this petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights because I have exhausted all avenues in the United States and still there has been no justice for my little girls,” said Gonzales. “Police must be required to enforce restraining orders or else these orders are meaningless. We need to hold the U.S. government accountable.”

Gonzales was living in Colorado when her three young daughters, Rebecca, age 10, Katheryn, age eight and Leslie, age seven, were killed when local police failed to enforce a restraining order against her estranged husband. The girls were abducted by their father and although Gonzales repeatedly called the police, telling them of her fears for the safety of her daughters, the police failed to respond. Several hours later, Gonzales’ husband drove to the police station with a gun and opened fire. The police shot and killed him, and then discovered the bodies of the three girls in the back of his pickup truck.

Today is the first time an individual complaint by a victim of domestic violence has been brought against the United States for international human rights violations.

“International human rights bodies, such as the Inter-American Commission, exist to ensure a basic level of humanity across nations,” said Steven Watt, an attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program. “And in domestic violence cases such as Jessica’s, international bodies provide access to redress when the home country fails to act.”

Gonzales filed a lawsuit against the police, but in June 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court found that she had no constitutional right to police enforcement of her restraining order. In December 2005, she filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, saying that the inaction of the police and the Supreme Court’s decision violated her human rights.

“Jessica sought justice for the death of her three daughters in the United States judicial system, and it failed her,” said Caroline Bettinger-Lopez of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic. “Every day she wakes up knowing that her three little girls are dead, and despite every effort, she has been denied justice from any domestic judicial body. Today she finally had a chance to tell her story.”

Gonzales has come to epitomize victims of domestic violence in the United States who all too often lack advocates within the law enforcement community. The Violence Against Women Act was recently amended to include a provision for funding of “Jessica Gonzales Victim Assistants,” individuals dedicated to liaising between victims of domestic violence and law enforcement. The positions are so named in recognition of Gonzales’ tragedy. States that receive these grants can use some of the money to fund the positions, but few states, including Colorado have availed themselves of the option.

“Sadly, Jessica’s case is not isolated,” said Lenora Lapidus of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “Women across the United States and across the globe are subjected to violence. The tragedy is how often these women reach out for help and are denied. Police departments and government agencies must fulfill their obligations to prevent, protect and provide redress for such abuse.”

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was created in 1959 and is expressly authorized to examine allegations of human rights violations by members of the Organization of American States, which includes the United States. It also conducts on-site visits to observe the general human rights situations in all 35 member-states of the Organization of American States and to investigate specific allegations of violations of Inter-American human rights treaties and other legal instruments. Its charge is to promote the observance and the defense of human rights in the Americas.

Gonzales is represented by Lapidus, Araceli Martinez-Olguin and Emily Martin of the ACLU Women’s Rights Program, Watt and Ann Beeson of the ACLU Human Rights Program and Bettinger-Lopez of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic. Gonzales has remarried and now goes by the name of Jessica Lehanan.

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