Women’s Initiatives Begin at Home

Early in his first term, President Obama appointed Melanne Verveer as the first Ambassador-At-Large for Global Women’s Issues. Now, a new appointee will take the lead on the state department’s global women’s initiatives. It is my hope that Cathy Russell uses her new position to address the continuing problems faced by women seeking legal protection from abusive partners. To date, much of the focus on women’s issues has been external to the U.S. While this is very important, we need to clean up our own backyard as well.

Major changes were recommended in August 2011 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in the way that the courts provide for, and police enforce, restraining orders. The IACHR heard the case of Jessica Gonzales (now Lenahan), whose three young daughters, ages seven, nine, and ten, were killed when her former husband, Simon Gonzales, violated a permanent restraining order, kidnapped the girls, and brought them into a shoot-out with the Castle Rock, Colorado police on June 22, 1999.

The night that Simon Gonzales took the three girls, Jessica contacted the Castle Rock police multiple times by phone and in person to report his violation of the restraining order and to describe her fear for her daughters’ safety. The police refused to respond, and the result was three dead little girls. Jessica filed suit, and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case. In a shocking decision, the court announced in 2005 that the Castle Rock police had no duty to enforce the restraining order.

Jessica and her team of attorneys received some vindication through the IACHR’s decision, which noted that domestic violence is a global human rights issue and recommended a thorough investigation into this specific case, more training for police, and more.

Having worked with survivors of abuse for seven years, I continue to see women denied restraining orders for themselves and their children, even when they are in clear danger. I have witnessed police repeatedly fail to arrest abusers for violating restraining orders by threatening their victims through calls, emails, text messages and other means. More than 1,000 people are killed each year—at least three per day—by abusive partners.

President Obama has perhaps done more about this issue than any other president. The Department of Justice has recently announced new funding for 12 communities that are engaging in data-informed efforts to prevent domestic violence homicides. Obama himself, and in particular, Vice President Joe Biden, are vocal advocates of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was re-authorized by Congress in spring 2013.

More is needed, however, to protect women (and men) who are victims of abuse. Ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which Obama pledged, would be a good start. And, while the criminal justice system is surely not the only (and sometimes not the best) way to deal with cases of abuse, when victims elect to utilize it is imperative that police afford them the full protection of the law and are held accountable when they do not.