Film chronicles a mother’s fight for justice

Before Thursday’s screening of Home Truth, Jessica Lenahan spoke to students in Miami Law Professor Caroline Bettinger-López’s Human Rights Clinic class.
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Before Thursday’s screening of Home Truth, Jessica Lenahan spoke to students in Miami Law Professor Caroline Bettinger-López’s Human Rights Clinic class.

Film chronicles a mother’s fight for justice

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Home Truth, the story of Jessica Lenahan’s pursuit of more effective domestic violence laws, screened at UM’s Cosford Cinema.

“My kids still aren’t home. I don’t know what to do.”

Those are two sentences no mother ever wants to say. But on the night of June 22, 1999, in a distraught and helpless voice, Jessica Lenahan uttered those exact words to a Castle Rock, Colorado, 911 operator. 

It was, in fact, one of many emergency calls Lenahan made to police that night, telling officers she suspected her emotionally abusive husband, Simon Gonzales, had abducted her three daughters in violation of a restraining order and begging them to issue a missing children alert. 

They told Lenahan there was nothing they could do and that she should call back later if the girls still were not home. 

Lenahan feared for their safety, and tragically, her worst nightmare came true. 

The next morning, Simon Gonzales drove to the Castle Rock police station and opened fire with a semiautomatic handgun he had purchased earlier. Police fired back, killing the husband, and when they looked in the cab of his truck, they found the bodies of the three girls, Rebecca, 10, Katheryn, 9, and Leslie, 7. 

Devastated, Lenahan filed a federal lawsuit against the police, claiming they did not adequately enforce her restraining order despite her repeated calls for help. Her case went all the way to the Supreme Court. 

Last Thursday evening, with Lenahan and her lead attorney, University of Miami law professor Caroline Bettinger-López, in attendance,Home Truth, a documentary film that chronicles the Colorado mother’s story and fight for justice to change the way police departments respond to domestic violence cases, screened at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema. 

“When I met Jessica, I was blown away by her voice and her vision for justice in her own case and more broadly by what it meant for other survivors who experienced similar tragedies and similar roadblocks with the police,” Bettinger-López, whose Human Rights Clinic has been working on the case since 2006, said during a panel after the screening. “It was a real learning lesson for me as a young lawyer to meet her and to understand that the most important asset I could bring to the table was actually listening.” 

Bettinger-López and Lenahan met in 2004, when the former was a young attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “Her case was going up to the Supreme Court, and she was in the midst of a huge moment and momentum that was happening for women’s rights and civil rights communities across this country,” explained the UM law professor. 

In June 2005, the Supreme Court issued a judgment against Lenahan, ruling that she had no Constitutional due process right to police enforcement of her restraining order, despite a Colorado state law mandating arrest for violations of restraining orders. 

But Lenahan’s fight didn’t end there. 

She subsequently filed a complaint against the United States before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, claiming human rights violations by Castle Rock police for failing to protect her and her children. 

In so doing, Lenahan became the first individual domestic violence survivor to bring a case against the United States before an international board. On August 17, 2011, the commission issued a landmark decision, finding the United States was responsible for human rights violations suffered by Lenahan and recommending changes to U.S. domestic violence law and policy. 

In time for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Home Truth, directed by Katia Maguire and April Hayes and co-produced by Latino Public Broadcasting, gives “rise and awareness to the fact that these tragedies do happen,” Lenahan said Thursday at the Cosford Cinema. “The fact that it could have been avoided is really sad. Awareness is how we keep this movement alive and strong.” 

Lenahan’s voice and vision have touched just about all who have encountered her. “We heard about Jessica through Carrie when we met at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York about 10 years ago,” said Maguire, who worked on the documentary for nearly a decade. “When we saw her [Lenahan] speak, we were completely blown away just by her openness and charisma and vulnerability and warmth with the audience, and how generous she was when she was talking about some of the hardest things that have happened to her in her life.” 

Roman Rodriguez-Tejera, one of Bettinger-López’s students in the Human Right Clinic, said it was “a little scary coming on at first” to work on the Lenahan case. 

“Literally the very first meeting we ever had with Carrie, she invites us into her office, and on her table is every single document that this case has ever touched. She looked at us to see if we were terrified,” Rodriguez-Tejera said. “Being entrusted with the responsibility to do work that has a direct impact on somebody’s life is at times scary, but mostly it’s incredibly humbling. And it brings a level of seriousness and diligence to the work that we do.” 

While some laws have been enacted to better protect domestic violence victims, stronger legislation and policies need to be enacted, said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava. “We have to implement policy that will cause change. We actually have to implement things that will cause cultural shift. We can check off some of the boxes of things we’ve done. But we have to get to work,” she said, noting that in 2015, Miami-Dade County joined other cities and counties in enacting an ordinance to adopt the principles of CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women). 

Bettinger-López, who from 2015 to 2017 worked in the Obama Administration as the White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, a senior advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, and a member of the White House Council on Women and Girls, noted that during a recent visit to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where the IACHR was in session, a representative stood and told Lenahan that her case is mentioned every day at the commission and has helped change laws and policies across the hemisphere, citing examples in Argentina and Colombia. 

Lenahan hopes the film can be used as a “training tool.” 

“It’s really important that we look at the life that I had,” she said. “One day, when I’m 60 or somewhere around 80, and I’m watching this film with my grandchildren, and my granddaughter says, ‘Hey, it’s really helped me, grandma,’ that would be a huge gift.”