Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) v. United States

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  • Fairness in the Courts
  • Violence Against Women and Girls
  • Child Abuse
  • International Human Rights
  • Domestic Violence and Children
  • Authored Amicus Brief
2011

Determined whether the U.S. government violated international human rights treaties by failing to protect an individual from—and provide a remedy for—domestic violence, when local law enforcement failed to do so.

In this landmark case, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) found the U.S. government in violation of international human rights treaties. This was the first case brought by a domestic violence survivor against the U.S. before an international human rights court.

Background of the Case

The case stemmed from a tragic incident in Castle Rock, Colorado. In 1999, Jessica Lenahan’s (then Gonzales’s) ex-husband abducted the couple’s three daughters in violation of a domestic violence restraining order. Gonzales immediately alerted the police, calling them repeatedly over several hours and even going to the police station herself. Despite her pleas, the police made no effort to locate the children or enforce Colorado's mandatory arrest law. In the early morning hours, Gonzales’s ex-husband parked his truck in front of the Castle Rock Police Department and began firing shots into the building. Police returned fire and killed Gonzales’s ex-husband. Law enforcement later found the bodies of Gonzales’s three daughters in her ex-husband’s truck. All three girls had been shot dead.

To this day, Gonzales does not know whether her ex-husband or the police’s returning fire killed her daughters because local law enforcement failed to conduct a proper investigation into the girls’ deaths.

Summary of the Case

Gonzales sued the Castle Rock Police Department for failing to protect her daughters, particularly since Gonzales had a restraining order against her ex-husband. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where, in 2005, the Court ruled that Gonzales did not have a constitutional right to protection, and that the police’s failure to enforce her protection order was not unconstitutional.

Gonzales then took her case to the IACHR, alleging the U.S. violated her human rights. When local law enforcement fails to enforce a protective order, the amicus brief argues, international human rights law dictates that the U.S. has a duty to protect individuals from – and provide a remedy for – domestic violence. The U.S. failed to do so in Gonzales’s case.

Decision

IACHR found the U.S. government in violation of international human rights treaties. The decision detailed several non-binding recommendations to the U.S. government regarding the case.  These recommendations include:

  • "Full reparations" to Gonzales;
  • A "serious and impartial" investigation into Gonzales’s daughters’ deaths and the police department’s failure to respond to Gonzales’s calls for help; and
  • Adopting new laws or reforming current laws to make protection order enforcement mandatory – with adequate resources to ensure proper implementation and training on these issues.

Amicus Brief

Decision

Gill v. Office of Personnel Management and MA v. Dept. of HHS