The American Civil Liberties Union and several other human rights groups appeared before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) today and presented testimony that detailed the United States’ failure to adequately implement changes to its laws and policies on domestic violence that the Commission recommended in 2011.
The IACHR directed the United States to make the changes after deciding Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) v. United States, the first case brought before the Commission against the U.S. government by a domestic violence survivor. The case was previously heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in Town of Castle Rock v. Jessica Gonzales.
In 1999, Lenahan repeatedly called the police after her estranged husband, who was subject to a domestic violence restraining order, kidnapped their three daughters. Police in Castle Rock, Colorado, failed to respond to her calls and 10 hours later, he drove his pick-up truck to the local police station and opened fire. The police returned fire, killing him. The bodies of Lenahan’s daughters were found dead in the back of the truck. To this day, it is unknown who killed the children.
In its 2011 decision, the Commission recommended that the government conduct an investigation into the cause, time and place of the girls’ deaths and the systemic failures of the Castle Rock police department to enforce the domestic violence restraining order. It also recommended that the government provide compensation to Lenahan and her family and adopt reforms at the federal and state levels to ensure protection from domestic violence.
Human rights groups praised the IACHR’s landmark decision but the United States has made almost no progress in implementing the reforms since the decision was made.
“The time has come for the government to take concrete steps to prevent domestic violence, investigate incidences that occur and hold police accountable when they fail to respond adequately,” said Lenora Lapidus, Director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “We hope the hearing today will push the government to take meaningful action in this regard.”
As a first step toward compliance, human rights groups worked with the State Department and the Department of Justice to organize a Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, Non-Discrimination and Human Rights Roundtable in April 2014 to educate federal staff about how human rights standards reinforce and supplement existing U.S. laws and policies. However, the roundtable has not yet yielded concrete results.
“While landmark U.S. legislation such as the Violence Against Women Act exists to address the high incidence of violence against women, there is little in terms of legally binding federal provisions which provide substantive protection or prevention for acts of domestic violence,” said Rashida Manjoo, UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, who investigated the U.S. government’s responses to domestic violence during a country visit in 2011.
Last month, on the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, President Obama issued a Presidential Proclamation affirming, “the basic human right to be free from violence and abuse.” The important language of this proclamation must be translated into effective responses to and prevention of domestic violence.
“For 15 years, I have asked my government to investigate who killed my daughters, and when and where they died,” said Jessica Lenahan. “I will not stop seeking answers until I see my government take concrete steps toward conducting this investigation and repairing the human rights violations that I have suffered.”
The ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, Human Rights Clinics at the University of Miami Law School and University of Chicago Law School, and Columbia Law School represent Lenahan and will continue to work with the government until actionable steps toward reform in domestic violence protection and prevention are taken.