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By Alicia Gay, ACLU Liberty Center

As a little girl from Kansas once said, “there’s no place like home,” and she was right. All of us may have a different notion of what “home” is, but ultimately we can agree home should be a place where we can feel comfortable and safe. Unfortunately for too many people who have experienced domestic violence, home isn’t safe. It is also regrettable that in many cases law enforcement officials, and in some cases our own government, have failed in their duty to protect the most vulnerable among us.


In 1999, Jessica Lenahan (then Jessica Gonzales) repeatedly called the Castle Rock, CO police for help after her estranged husband, Simon Gonzales, kidnapped their three young children in violation of a domestic violence restraining order. Ten hours after Jessica’s first call to the police, her husband drove up to the Castle Rock Police Department and began firing his gun at the police station. The police returned fire, killing Simon. Inside the truck, the police found the bodies of Jessica’s three girls who had been shot dead.


Jessica fought for justice in the U.S. legal system, taking her case against the Castle Rock police all the way to the Supreme Court.  The justices ruled that Jessica had no constitutional right to police protection.


But Jessica wasn't done fighting. Along with her attorneys, she filed a petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The commission made public on Aug. 17 a landmark decision in which it found the United States had violated Jessica’s human rights and those of her children. The commission also emphasized that the government has a duty to protect domestic violence victims by taking steps to ensure their safety, including the enforcement of restraining orders. It took Jessica 12 years to find justice, but what about the estimated 1.3 million women in the U.S. who are assaulted by an intimate partner each year?


Jessica’s story may seem extreme, but thousands of domestic violence victims across the country face barriers when they seek protection from domestic violence.  State and federal laws have been strengthened to address domestic violence, but they are often enforced erratically, if at all, contributing to the epidemic of domestic violence in this country.


The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women recently investigated gender-based violence in the U.S.  The report made numerous recommendations on how governments can fulfill their obligations to victims of abuse, including:

  • Establishing meaningful standards for enforcement of protective orders;
  • Creating mechanisms for survivors to hold police accountable when they fail to carry out their responsibilities under domestic violence laws; and
  • Prohibiting discrimination against victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking in employment and housing.


Battered women and children deserve to know that they have a right to be secure, safe, and protected – especially in their own homes.


This blogpost is part of the multi-organizational #HERvotes blog carnival.

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