"If restraining orders are not enforced, then they are not worth the paper they are written on," explained Jessica Lenahan (formerly Gonzales) during her visit to Cornell Law School last month. Lenahan, a courageous human rights advocate and domestic violence survivor who transformed her own devastation into an international fight for the rights of others harmed by domestic violence, was in Ithaca for the Law School's Berger and Dorothea S. Clarke Current Events Colloquium, which featured a screening of Home Truth, a new documentary film about her story and case.
Home Truth, directed by filmmakers Katia Maguire and April Hayes, chronicles Lenahan's years-long struggle for justice after her three young daughters were abducted by their father in violation of a restraining order and killed in Castle Rock, Colorado, in 1999. The documentary illustrates the challenges that Lenahan and her family faced as she sued her local police department for the officers' failure to enforce the restraining order, pursuing her case to the Supreme Court of the United States, and ultimately, to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, where she won a landmark judgment against the United States.
"This film holds particular resonance for our community," said Elizabeth Brundige, an associate clinical professor at the Law School, who organized the Colloquium with her Gender Justice Clinic students and their campus and community partners. She explained that county and local governments in Tompkins County have joined a growing number of communities nationwide in adopting resolutions that embrace the principles of the Inter-American Commission decision by recognizing that freedom from domestic violence is a fundamental human right.
At the Colloquium, which took place at the Law School on March 13 and at Cinemapolis on March 14, Lenahan joined her lawyers, Caroline Bettinger-López, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law who formerly served in the Obama administration as White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, and Lenora Lapidus, director of the ACLU's Women's Rights Project; Hayes and Maguire; and Heather Campbell, Executive Director of the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County, for a panel discussion following the screenings.
Speaking to an engaged audience that included government officials, judges, service providers, lawyers, educators, students, and other community members, Lenahan explained why she decided to allow the filmmakers to tell her story. "I felt like my situation was like so many situations out there, and no one was talking about it," she said. "So my personal reason for doing this has been prevention. And healing; it has also helped me to heal." According to Lapidus, Lenahan never had the opportunity to speak in the Supreme Court or any other court in the U.S. By contrast, she said, "It was powerful at the Inter-American Commission because Jessica got to tell her story to a human rights tribunal."
Yet the panelists pointed out that the road to implementing the Commission's decision has been difficult and incomplete. Lapidus said, "There is no judge that can order the U.S. to comply with the decision, so it came back to the advocates to keep pushing the government to comply with the Commission's decision." She noted, "There is still a lot [the government] has not done." Campbell added that the issues in Lenahan's case are still very relevant at a local level. "We as a culture and society expect survivors to go through so much in order to get a tiny piece of justice," she explained. "And even when survivors jump through all of the hoops, the system can still fail."
The Tompkins County community has helped to carry on Lenahan's legacy through its efforts to implement its own human rights resolutions. According to Campbell, the Advocacy Center's work on this initiative with the Gender Justice Clinic, Tompkins County Office of Human Rights and Human Rights Commission, and other partners has been "one of the most collaborative campus-community projects I have worked on so far." She noted that the initiative "has spawned so many projects, one of which included the Cornell students authoring a training tool for managers and human resources staff on how to deal with domestic violence, and we have now trained over 500 people."
"It is incumbent upon communities to take ownership and think about how to implement these decisions [of human rights bodies like the Inter-American Commission] on a local level," Bettinger-López told the Colloquium audience. She added, "And this community, more so than any other community in the U.S., has shown that this is possible."
For her part, Lenahan plans to continue the collaboration begun at the Colloquium when she returns to Cornell Law School in Fall 2018, as a Dorothea S. Clarke Visiting Feminist Scholar. "I met so many wonderful people in the small community of Tompkins County, New York," she says, "and I look forward to our continued work together."
By Shelby Garland '19
The Berger and Dorothea S. Clarke Colloquium, Home Truth: A Film Screening and Discussion on Domestic Violence and Human Rights, was co-sponsored by Cornell Law School's Berger International Legal Affairs Program, Dorothea S. Clarke Program in Feminist Jurisprudence, Gender Justice Clinic, and Office of Public Service; the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County; the Finger Lakes Women's Bar Association; the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission; the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights; and the Women's Resource Center at Cornell University.