DENVER – Jessica Lenahan has spent 19 years fighting for accountability.
On Friday night, the former Coloradan, whose three young daughters were killed by their father in a fit of domestic rage aimed at her, was honored for her long fight to get restraining orders enforced.
Lenahan, and attorney Carrie Bettinger-Lopez of the University of Miami Human Rights Law Clinic, were named Champions of Change by CU Denver’s Center on Domestic Violence.
“It gives me hope to continue,” she said, “because I see there is progress.” Lenahan said.
It didn’t always seem that way.
Lenahan’s three daughters, Rebecca, 10; Katheryn, 8; and Leslie, 7, were kidnapped by their father, Simon Gonzales, in violation of a restraining order, on June 22, 1999.
She said police let her down when they didn’t enforce the court order, despite her repeated phone requests.
“I shouldn’t have had to describe my children, and the vehicle, and the situation for ten hours, over-and-over again, just to be called ridiculous,” she said, adding, "There was a fourth child, that wasn't mine, that nobody ever speaks of. Her name was Rebecca Robinson, and Simon abducted her as well. Police still did not look for the fourth child."
Lenahan sued the Castle Rock Police Department.
Her case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that enforcement of the restraining order was not mandatory under Colorado law.
“For an individual to have to prove themselves for 19 years to their country, and not be validated, is the worst feeling in the world,” she said. "We’re taught that this government is built for us, and for them to fail so bad, that I lost three children and there’s no accountability, is so sad.”
Human Rights Victory
With the help of the ACLU and human rights attorney Caroline Bettinger-Lopez, Lenahan sought and eventually won justice at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which ruled that the U.S. violated her human rights.
“The commissioners allowed me to have a voice,” she said. “I never had a voice in my own country.”
On Thursday night, the Special Rapporteur on Women, from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, told Lenahan that her case is being used in 35 other countries.
“I think that is amazing,” said Barbara Paradiso, director of the Center on Domestic Violence at the University of Colorado Denver. “I have always admired Jessica for the work that she’s been doing in the United States, and I knew about the long trial that she’s gone through with our own governmental system, but I didn’t realize how far-reaching her work was. I’m just astounded and thrilled that she’s been able to have that kind of impact on so many people around the world.”
A Different Person
Lenahan said she’s not the same person she was 19 years ago.
“I don’t recognize that person,” she chuckled. “I have become a whole new person.”
Lenahan, who now lives in New York, said the fight for accountability has become her career.
“It is the better part of my life to make sure that human life is saved, that policy is changed, and that awareness is at the forefront,” she said.
She said she’s still angry.
“It takes being mad to make a difference,” she said. “To know that all my family and friends and loved ones live here and that they could suffer the same trauma and loss breaks my heart.”
Lenahan said if it were up to her, she’d go to the Department of Justice and ask them to remake the Castle Rock Police Department.
“Not to tear them down, to build them back up,” she said.
When asked what’s next for Jessica, Lenahan replied, “Right now, I’m proud to say I’m taking a semester at Cornell Law School and that I’ve become a New Yorker.”
She said her next fight is for spiritual rights.
“I would fight for my Native American sisters and brothers that are incarcerated, to be able to pray and sweat, in every state and every county,” she said. “Other people have their rabbis, their priests. They all come in and they have a way to be spiritual, so that would be my personal project, to go back and replenish the traditional (native) ways that have been taken away.”
CU Denver Center on Domestic Violence
“I wish I had the same strength and endurance that Jessica has shown,” Paradiso told Denver7. “The emotional toll and physical toll, the energy that it takes to stay true to a goal, a vision to make change and go through what is an incredibly difficult process is really amazing.”
Paradiso told Denver7 that the Center on Domestic Violence has some of the same goals as Lenahan.
“We’re working towards bringing an end to domestic and sexual violence by helping to prepare individuals, organizations and communities to respond to those crimes more effectively and ultimately to prevent those crimes in the future,” she said.
Paradiso added that one of the things they do is train individuals who are interested in moving into leadership roles around domestic and sexual violence, so they have the information they need.
“They have the research; they have the personal experience; they have stories like Jessica’s that they can use in their own communities,” she said. “We help people understand the kind of policy shift that is needed. Ultimately, we serve as a conduit of information about policies that do exist, the research that’s been done, which policies are effective, which are not, and distribute that information out to our communities.”
"Thrilled to Honor Jessica"
Paradiso said she couldn’t be more thrilled than to have this opportunity to honor the work that Lenahan has done and that her colleague, Caroline Bettinger-Lopez has done, to bring awareness around the lack of response in our country regarding restraining orders.
“To bring it to the point where there is such evidence now, that is something we can hang our hat on,” she said. “That people in 35 countries can turn to say, ‘by inaction, we are not honoring the human rights of individuals in our country.’”