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The First Woman to Ever Sue the U.S. for Violating Her Human Rights

On June 22, 1999, Jessica Lenahan began her day without a clue of the tragedy about to occur that would dramatically alter the course of her life.

Lenahan had four children, a boy and three girls, with her estranged husband Simon Gonzales. Gonzales was abusive, leading to a divorce and for Lenahan to acquire a domestic violence restraining order against him.

That morning, Lenahan’s daughters, aged seven, nine, and ten at the time, disappeared while playing outside of their Castle Rock home. When Lenahan realized they were gone, she called the Castle Rock Police Department, immediately suspecting that it was Gonzales who had kidnapped them. The officers ignored Lenahan’s pleas and told her that Gonzales had a right to see his children, according to the contract. The cops even went so far as to call her concerns ‘ridiculous’, and they urged her to call the non-emergency hotline.

At midnight, Lenahan’s daughters still had not been found. When Lenahan contacted the station again, an officer told her that a bulletin had been sent out to inform the police force of the missing children. In reality, the bulletin was never sent.

At 3:30 a.m., Gonzales drove to the police station and opened fire on the officers inside. He was shot and killed. The dead bodies of Gonzales and Lenahan’s daughters were found inside his pickup truck.

The outrage and pain Lenahan has endured since the tragedy cannot be put into words. Not only did she lose her three daughters to a monster, but she would soon learn that the legal system would fail to bring justice to her family.

Home Truth, a documentary that premiered at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on Sunday in NYC, found Lenahan and began documenting the mother’s story. The team followed Lenahan for nine years as she fought for justice for her daughters.

When Lenahan tried to sue the Castle Rock Police Department for violating her constitutional rights by failing to enforce her requests, her lawsuit was denied, and it was ruled that she did not have the right to sue.

After this devastating blow, Lenahan began to work with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and her lawyer Carrie Bettinger-Lopez in order to bring the case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a Washington, D.C.-based tribunal that aims to protect human rights in the Americas. Though the committee has no real ability to enforce a decision, an affirmative ruling from the tribunal provides a way of publicly shaming the U.S. for not having adequately protected victims of domestic abuse.

It wasn’t until 2011 that the committee found the U.S. guilty of violating Lenahan’s rights as a domestic violence survivor and for discriminating against her on the basis of her gender. This ruling would mark Lenahan as the first domestic violence survivor who successfully sued the U.S. for violating her human rights.

In 2015, the ruling finally led to policy, and Lenahan’s case led to the creation of new Justice Department guidelines regarding gender bias in policing. Gender bias now qualifies as a form of discrimination, and in the first 18 months after these policies were enforced, wrongdoings across the country were addressed and dozens of municipalities declared freedom from domestic violence to be a human right.

Home Truth has followed Lenahan through her journey from a victim to a client to an advocate for domestic violence, and nothing will stop Lenahan in her pursuits to bring justice to those who have experienced similar tragedies. You can get involved in her fight by seeing the film or by joining the Impact Campaign, which pushes for police reform to ensure that no one else experiences what Lenahan did.

Featured Image by Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos on Flickr

Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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