October 2: International Day of Non-Violence

Cincinnati Law’s Domestic Violence/Civil Protection Order Clinic promotes the human right to be free from intimate partner violence.

On this International Day of Non-Violence, we go local.  That is, Cincinnati Law proudly celebrates its Domestic Violence and Civil Protection Order (DV/CPO) Clinic.

In addition to representing survivors, our Clinic students have highlighted the importance of addressing intimate partner violence. Namely five years ago this month, thanks to Cincinnati Law Professor Kenyatta Hurd and Clinic students, the Cincinnati City Council adopted a resolution recognizing freedom from domestic violence as a fundamental human right and declaring that the city, as well as state and local governments, have an obligation to secure this right.

The DV/CPO Clinic’s success in this area is part of a larger movement to use human rights principles to address this issue following a remarkable ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).  Specifically In 2011, the IACHR found the United States responsible for human rights violations suffered by Jessica Lenahan in a horrific case of intimate partner violence that culminated in the deaths of her daughters Leslie, Kathryn, and Rebecca Gonzales.

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Jessica Lenahan

Eleven years earlier, Ms. Lenahan sought to hold the police in her Colorado town responsible for failing to enforce the terms of a protection order she had secured against her ex-husband Simon Gonzales.  Despite the court’s order that Mr. Gonzales remain at least 100 yards away from the family home, he abducted the couple’s children.  Ms. Lenahan called police starting at 7:30 in the evening to report her husband’s misconduct and urge officers to find him and the girls.  Police rebuffed her repeatedly, telling her at one point not to worry since the kids were with their father.  She continued to urge police to intervene, contacting them six times over the course of five hours, even confronting officers at the police station.   Mr. Gonzales remained out of sight and contact until about 3 a.m.  At that time, he arrived at the police station, firing a semi-automatic weapon.  Officers shot back; when it was all over, Gonzales and the girls were dead.  Police said Gonzales killed the girls before the shootout began.

The federal Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the town’s police department violated Ms. Lenahan’s right to due process by failing to enforce the protection order.  But the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.  It concluded that Ms. Lenahan had no constitutional right to enforcement of the protection order.

With her case at the end of the road in the U.S. judicial system, Ms. Lenahan turned to the human rights framework to pursue this matter. Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic represented her in the IACHR in 2007 and secured a victory.   The Commission’s report found the U.S. responsible for violating Ms. Lenahan’s human rights by failing to protect her and her children from domestic violence, denying them equal protection under the law, and failing to take reasonable steps to prevent the deaths of Leslie, Kathryn, and Rebecca. It also recommended that the US:

  • Investigate exhaustively the events surrounding the deaths of the Gonzales girls to determine the cause, time, and place of their demise, uncover the systemic failures facilitated the violence they suffered, and provide full reparations to Ms. Lenahan;
  • Adopt federal and state laws to make enforcement of protection orders or similar measures mandatory; and
  • Enact federal and state laws to protect children in the context of domestic violence, including resources to make such protections a reality, among other things.

Cincinnati Law’s DV/CPO Clinic was the first to secure a municipal resolution recognizing the human rights implications of intimate partner violence and the state’s responsibility to address it meaningfully.  In so doing, it has helped highlight the international implications of domestic failures to address such violence.  Indeed, President Obama proclaimed in 2014 that there is “a basic human right to be free from violence and abuse,” which the Violence Against Women Act vindicates.

On this International Non-Violence Day, we salute the Clinic’s efforts and pledge to continue to fight against intimate partner violence.

Author: Verna L. Williams

Interim Dean, Nippert Professor of Law, co-founder and co-director of Cincinnati Law's Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice. Professor Williams joined Cincinnati Law's faculty in 2001. She teaches Constitutional Law; Gender and the Law; and Family Law. Her research examines the intersection of race and gender in law and society.

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