Protection against violence is a fundamental human right

Jessica Lenahan tells her story of domestic violence and how the Castle Rock Police Department in Colorado failed to protect her.

In 2011, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a landmark decision in Jessica Lenahan (formerly Gonzales) v. U.S., finding the United States violated its obligations under international human rights law to use diligence and reasonable measures to protect a woman and her children from violence.  The case arose from the repeated failure of the Castle Rock Police Department to enforce Ms. Lenahan’s restraining order, resulting in the tragic death of her three children.  Previously, the U.S. Supreme Court had dismissed her case against the police department holding that individuals have no constitutional rights to enforce protection orders.

Though the case neither occurred in Indian country or an Alaska Native village nor involved a tribal protection order, it challenged a U.S. Supreme Court decision and law enforcement practices with major implications for Indian and Alaska Native women.  Tribal protection orders often are the primary recourse Native women have against domestic violence perpetrators.  These protection orders are only good to the extent they are enforced.  Because of these special implications, in 2008, the Indian Law Resource Center, Sacred Circle National Resource Center to End Violence Against Native women, and nineteen other entities filed an amicus brief to inform the Inter-American Commission about the epidemic of violence against Native women in the United States and the devastating effect of the Lenahan decision on Native women.

The failure of state law enforcement officials to recognize and enforce tribal protection orders continues to leave Native women and their children extremely vulnerable to violence.  Just recently, in July 2014, it was necessary for then Associate Attorney General Tony West to inform the Alaska Attorney General that the State of Alaska is legally obligated under federal law to honor tribal court protection orders regardless of whether those orders have been filed or registered in a state court. 

On October 27, 2014, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held a thematic hearing to follow up on its recommendations related to the Lenahan case.  Among other things, these included opening an investigation into the deaths of Ms. Lenahan’s three daughters; providing Ms. Lenahan with reparations for the violations of her human rights; and commencing an investigation into the pattern and practice of inappropriate law enforcement responses to domestic violence victims; and adopting or reforming laws to protect women from domestic violence. Both the Commission and Ms. Lenahan noted the lack of progress by the U.S. in implementing the recommendations. Ms. Rashida Manjoo, UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, the causes and consequences, urged the United States to address both the legislative and structural causes that lead to violence against women.  Commissioner Tracy Robinson, also the Rapporteur on the Rights of Women, reported that the Commission has a strong interest in the extent that international human rights standards are being integrated into new policies concerning violence against women.

Help make the first case brought by a domestic violence survivor – Jessica Lenahan – against the U.S. in an international forum count.  Please watch and share Jessica’s advocacy video.

Domestic Violence Awareness Month is ending, but violence against women, especially American Indian and Alaska Native women, is not.  

Learn more about violence against Native women at and check out “The Inter-American Human Rights System ─ Combating Violence Against Native Women in the United States,” our resource guide on advocacy efforts for indigenous women’s organizations seeking to bring human rights claims to the international arena.