BROOKLYN, NY (Workers World Today) — The bullet-ridden bodies of three little girls—7-year-old Leslie, 9-year-old Katheryne and 10-year-old Rebecca—lay untouched in a van. The owner of the van? Their father. Their murderer? Their father. This tragedy is the subject of a documentary, Home Truth, that had a world premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. A victim of all too common domestic violence, Jessica Gonzalez (now Lanahan) did what women in a similar plight are always advised to do—she filed an order of protection against her abusive ex-husband assuming she would be safe.
Did it work? Unfortunately, the answer is an emphatic no because her ex abducted their three small daughters and shot them to death. Jessica suffered through a nightmarish night as she called the local police becoming increasingly desperate as the hours ticked away. Her calls were ignored by all the police officers who picked up that phone that fateful night. She pleaded with them; they simply told her to let them know if the girls don’t come home.
She ultimately filed a lawsuit against the police department, claiming they did not enforce the restraining order. Notwithstanding her grief and pain, she pursued her case to the highest court of the land—the Supreme Court and the Inter American Commission on Human Rights.
Caroline Bettinger-Lopez, a member of her legal team and former White House Adviser on Violence against Women, emailed me her articles including, “Introduction: Jessica Lanahan (Gonzalez) v. United States Implementation, Litigation and Mobilization Strategies.”
Jessica, a Latina and Native American, and her ex, Simon, were working-class residents of Castle Rock, Colorado. Since he manifested a pattern of abusive behavior in the past, vis-a-vis his family, Jessica logically obtained a restraining order. According to Bettinger-Lopez, “ a …notice to law enforcement on the back of the restraining order quoted Colorado’s mandatory arrest law which states that ‘a peace officer should use every reasonable means to enforce a restraining order…and arrest…or seek a warrant for the arrest of the restrained person.’” Did the police turn over that page and read these instructions? Apparently, they did not. Her telephone calls ignored; the notice ignored. But nonetheless, she persevered.
On the night of June 22, 1993, while innocently playing in their front yard, with no foreboding of their gruesome fate, Simon abducted his daughters. Jessica was convinced she knew the identity of their abductor and conveyed her suspicions to the police. “She contacted the Castle Rock Police Department…nine times over the course of nearly ten hours to report the abduction and restraining order violation and to seek help in locating her children and arresting Mr. Gonzalez. Her increasingly desperate calls and in-person pleas went unheeded despite Colorado’s clearly delineated mandatory arrest law.” A mother begs the police but apparently, they turned a deaf ear to her desperate pleas. A parenthetical note–the police did finally step into the picture and did their job, but it was sadly too late when Simon, armed with a gun, arrived on the threshold of the police station and engaged in a bloody gun battle. The police response—they killed him and soon thereafter made the gruesome and heartbreaking discovery of those three dead bodies lying motionless in his van. Jessica immediately and without hesitation sued that aforementioned police department for $30 million arguing that “they failed to take reasonable steps to protect her children from the real…risk posed by their father. …The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision ruled that she had absolutely no constitutional right to the enforcement of such an order.” One can only speculate on why these orders are on the books as recommended avenues for abused women.
Bettinger-Lopez continues, “An obscure but promising legal avenue was available to Jessica…. She could file a petition with the Inter American Commission on Human Rights claiming the U.S. was responsible for human rights violations resulting from the CRPD [Castle Rock Police Department] inaction and the Supreme Court decision. When Jessica learned of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights system she was hopeful that framing her case as a human rights violation could give closure to her personal tragedy and spur important legislative and policy changes in the U.S. Jessica filed a petition before the commission alleging violation of fundamental rights…to life and freedom from inhumane treatment…the petition contextualized her story within a larger pattern of non-response to domestic violence by the police….never before had a domestic violence survivor file an international legal claim against the U.S.”
Once upon a time, domestic violence victims lived with their abusers behind closed doors. Even though their doors have been broken down, their suffering is still a daily reality. But one courageous woman has emerged from the huge population of its victims who embarked on a journey that spanned several years with no inkling of its success or failure, a journey that transformed her identity from victim who lost not just one child, but three, to advocate.
Jessica now enjoys the distinction of being named the first domestic violence survivor to successfully bring a case against the U.S. government before an international human rights tribunal. Her goal—to achieve justice for her deceased children and to strengthen legal rights for other women similarly victimized.
As Bettinger-Lopez stated, “In 2011 the Commission issued the landmark decision finding the U.S. responsible under the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man for human rights violations suffered by …Lanahan and her children. The commission found that the Castle Rock Police…should have known that the girls’ lives were at risk…and failing to…ensure the implementation of the restraining order.” Her case now appears in textbooks around the U.S. and within the domestic violence community and Jessica is presently a Visiting Scholar, Dorothea S. Clarke Progress in Feminist Jurisprudence, Cornell Law School.