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Home / Articles / In the News / Tragedy as a Catalyst for Change

Tragedy as a Catalyst for Change

After her estranged husband killed their three daughters, Jessica Lenahan took her fight for human rights to the Supreme Court

Tragedy as a Catalyst for Change

In May 1999, Jessica Lenahan (then Gonzalez), fearing for the safety of herself and her children, obtained a restraining order against her estranged husband, Simon Gonzalez. On June 22, 1999, their three young daughters, Rebecca, Katheryn and Leslie, were playing after school in the front yard of Jessica’s Castle Rock, Colorado home.

Jessica discovered that the girls were missing and called 911. She explained that she suspected Simon had taken the girls and, if so, he had violated the restraining order. Over the next 10 hours, terrified that her daughters were in danger, she contacted the Castle Rock police numerous times, both over the phone and in person. 

In the early morning of June 23, 1999, Simon drove to the police station and started shooting. He was killed in a shootout with the police. In his truck they found the dead bodies of the three girls. 

Jessica sued the town of Castle Rock and three of its police officers for not enforcing the restraining order. By 2005 her case had attracted the attention of the ACLU and reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against her, saying, in effect, that she and her daughters had no Constitutional right to have her restraining order enforced by police. 

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Determined to find justice for her murdered daughters, Jessica filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, claiming that her human rights had been violated. She was the first individual domestic violence survivor from the U.S. to bring a case before an international human rights tribunal. 

The commission ruled in her favor and made recommendations about better enforcing restraining orders and training police to the US government. In December 2015 the U.S. Justice Department released new guidelines for identifying and preventing gender bias in law enforcement, specifically in response to sexual abuse and domestic violence. 

Since then, cities and counties across the country have passed resolutions naming freedom from domestic violence a human right.

Raising Awareness

Jessica shared her story in the 2017 documentary Home Truth, available for streaming on PBS

“I felt like it needed to be documented. The information needed to be told,” she says. “People identify with my experience and where it went wrong, really wrong.”

Jessica’s case is now studied in law textbooks around the country, and her case is considered one of the most significant legal cases in the domestic violence field. “This case moved the needle throughout the U.S.,” says Caroline Bettinger-López, director of the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law and Jessica’s attorney, formerly with the ACLU. She shared her optimism on progress in a recent article published in Foreign Affairs

“Jessica as a survivor is holding people accountable and holding her country accountable. She’s pushing the agenda. When we listen to survivors and follow their lead we find ourselves in unexpected places. The ground is not well trodden, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go there,” she adds.

After spending years in law schools sharing her story as a guest, Jessica has decided to build a career in law and she’s currently enrolled at Cornell Law School. 

“The success we’ve had is because of awareness. People believe what we’re doing is the right thing to do. The things women and children are going through—they should not be suffering at the hands of people who say they love them,” Jessica says. “I hope to give Americans the voice to find justice in their own lives.”

Getting Protection in Place

Jessica’s case highlights some of the problems surrounding restraining orders and protection orders. Strengthening restraining orders is important. Consider these statistics:

  • Approximately 20% of the 1.5 million people who experience intimate partner violence annually obtain civil protection orders.
  • Approximately one-half of the restraining orders obtained by women against intimate partners who physically assaulted them were violated. 
  • More than two-thirds of the restraining orders against intimate partners who raped or stalked the victim were violated. 
  • There is a 21% chance of an escalation in violent behavior after a protection order is issued. 

Bettinger-López says, “The legal system so often silences victims. We hear this time and time again. The major reason victims don’t want to participate in the legal system is that they feel silenced by the system that’s supposed to be protecting them.”

She says that people who take out restraining orders should try to understand the terms so they know what constitutes safety. They also need to know how to engage with law enforcement or other resources if they fear the consequences of getting a restraining order or if they are concerned the abuser won’t observe the restraining order.

“This isn’t to say it’s their responsibility—they should be able to rely on police—but all too often law enforcement doesn’t understand how restraining orders operate. Hopefully knowledge means power,” she says.