New hope to American Indian women facing domestic violence

WASHINGTON, D.C. - An international human rights body has done something that federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court, failed to do - bring justice to a domestic violence survivor.

"This decision is important for Native women who face the highest rates of sexual and physical assault of any group in the United States," said Jana Walker, Indian Law Resource Center attorney. "Although this case did not originate in Indian Country, it has major implications for an ethnic group who rarely sees their abusers brought to justice."

On Aug. 17, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a landmark decision in Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) v. United States. The decision is the first women's human rights case involving domestic violence brought before an international body against the United States. The Commission determined that the United States violated its obligations under international human rights laws by failing to use due diligence and reasonable measures to protect Ms. Lenahan and her daughters from violence by her estranged husband.

The case was based on a tragic incident in 1999, involving the deliberate failure of the Castle Rock, Colorado police to enforce a domestic violence restraining order. Ms. Lenahan had repeatedly called the police for help after her estranged husband kidnapped her three children in violation of the order. Ten hours after Ms. Lenahan's first call, the husband drove to the police station, where he and the three children were killed in an exchange of gunfire. Ms. Lenahan sought justice in the federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court, for violation of her rights by the police.

After the United States Supreme Court held that women do not have a constitutional right to have civil protection orders enforced by the police, Town of Castle Rock, Colo. v. Gonzales, 545 U.S. 748 (2005), Ms. Lenahan filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights alleging that the United States' failure to act with due diligence to prevent violence against women violated its obligations under international human rights law.

In 2008, the Indian Law Resource Center and Sacred Circle National Resource Center to End Violence Against Native Women filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Commission in support of Ms. Lenahan, on behalf of numerous non-profit organizations and tribal governments working to end violence against Native women. In its decision, the Commission took notice of this brief and acknowledged that domestic violence has a disproportionate impact on Native women and other low income minority women.

"We want our voices to be heard around this case, because the United States Supreme Court decision had vast implications for Native women and the enforcement of tribal protection orders by state law enforcement officials," said Terri Henry, Co-chair of the National Congress of American Indians Task Force on Violence Against Women and Principal Director of Clan Star, Inc. "Violence against Native women in the United States has reached epidemic proportions. One out of three Native women will be raped in her lifetime, and three out of four will be physically assaulted."

Because the United States has greatly limited tribal criminal jurisdiction and sentencing authority, often the only recourse that Native women have against their abusers is a civil protection order.

"By allowing state law enforcement to choose not to enforce domestic violence protection orders, the United States Supreme Court decision in the Gonzales case greatly undermines the security of Native women, because no one else has the authority to enforce these orders outside of Indian country," said Lucy Simpson, Executive Director, National Indigenous Women's Resource Center. "This decision gives Native nations and our communities an instrument to change and improve the lives of Native women."

In relation to the Gonzales case, the Commission handed down several recommendations which encourages further investigation into the death of Ms. Lenahan's daughters.

"The recommendations to the United States send a strong message that immediate action is needed to fix systemic failures in the way protection orders are enforced in the U.S. and to reform federal law to protect all women, including Native women, from violence," said Juana Majel Dixon, National Congress of American Indians 1st Vice President, and Co-Chair of its Task Force on Violence Against Women. Restoration of tribal criminal jurisdiction, effective enforcement of tribal protection orders, and meaningful access to justice will be absolutely critical in protecting Native women from domestic and other violence within Indian country and Alaska Native villages. "Such reforms reflect a broken justice system based in a history of colonization that is now recognized as failing to protect Native women."

For a copy of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights decision and the friend-of-the-court visit www.indianlaw.org.

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