Inter-American Commission Finds Survivor’s Rights Violated
August 18, 2011
The commission’s decision affirms that the government’s responsibility to protect families from abuse amounts to more than issuing a piece of paper. A restraining order to prevent this kind of horrific violence is meaningless if a woman calls the police seven times and her calls go unheeded.
Meghan Rhoad, women’s rights researcher

(New York) – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has ruled that the United States violated international obligations when the government failed to enforce a restraining order against an abusive husband, Human Rights Watch said today. The couple’s daughters were found dead with gunshot wounds in the back of the husband’s truck in Colorado in 1999.

The US should move quickly to adopt the commission’s recommendations, issued on August 17, 2011, for improving the country’s response to domestic violence, Human Rights Watch said.

“The commission’s decision affirms that the government’s responsibility to protect families from abuse amounts to more than issuing a piece of paper,” said Meghan Rhoad, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “A restraining order to prevent this kind of horrific violence is meaningless if a woman calls the police seven times and her calls go unheeded.”

Jessica Lenahan (previously Jessica Gonzales) called the police in Castle Rock, Colorado, seven times over seven hours after her estranged husband, Simon Gonzales, abducted her three daughters, ages 7, 8, and 10, on June 22, 1999. Despite the fact that Lenahan had a restraining order against her husband, the police took no action. Early the following morning, Simon Gonzales drove up to the police station in his pickup truck and began shooting. The police shot back, killing him. Police then found the slain bodies of the three girls in the back of the truck.

In reviewing the case, the commission found that the US failed to act with due diligence to protect  Lenahan and her daughters from domestic violence, violating the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, which provides protections against gender discrimination and equal protection before the law. The government’s failures also violated the daughters’ right to life and Lenahan’s right to judicial protection, the commission said.

In addition to recommending a thorough investigation of the Colorado case and reparations for Lenahan, the commission outlined specific steps the government should take to meet its human rights obligations. These include making enforcement of protection orders mandatory, adopting legislation with protection measures for children in domestic violence situations, and undertaking training programs for public officials on domestic violence prevention and response.

Before it was heard by the commission, the case went before the US Supreme Court, which ruled in June 2005 that Lenahan did not have a constitutional right to the enforcement of the restraining order against her husband.