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Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

MAY 11th, 2007- PRESS RELEASE

Mother’s Day complaint claims United States courts violate human rights of abused women and children.

NEW YORK, On May 11, just before Mother’s Day weekend, ten mothers, one victimized child, now and an adult, leading national and state organizations filed a complaint against the United States with the Inter American Commission on Human Rights. The case claims that U.S. courts, by frequently awarding child custody to abusers and child molesters, has failed to protect the life, liberties, security and other human rights of abused mothers and their children.

“For more than 30 years U.S. judges have given custody or unsupervised visitation of children to abusers and molesters putting the children directly at risk,” says Dianne Post, an international attorney who authored the petition.  “These horrendous human rights violations have been brought to the attention of family court systems, and state and federal governments, to no avail. We turn now to international courts to protect the rights and safety of US children.”

The complaint details several cases with documented medical evidence of child sexual abuse, yet in each instance the abusing father was given full custody of the children he abused.  Several of the mothers were jailed by the courts because of their persistent efforts to protect their children from abuse, several were ordered not to speak of the abuse and not to report abuse to authorities.  Every mother was denied contact with her child for some period of time though none was ever proven to have harmed them.

“My life was completely shattered apart on that day and my childhood was destroyed,” said Jeff Hoverson, the adult child petitioner, about the day a family court judge ordered sheriff deputies to deliver him into the custody of his abuser. “It was as if I was just kidnapped. I was torn from everything I knew....I was made into a possession rather than a child.”  Hoverson endured years of trauma and fear living in his father’s home before escaping and returning to his mother at age 17.  He is haunted by years of feeling helpless to prevent his father’s night-time visits to his sisters’ bedrooms.

“The cases in this petition represent the proverbial tip of the iceberg,” says Irene Weiser, executive director of the online organization  Stop Family Violence.  “We are contacted by an average of three protective mothers each week who have lost custody to child abusing fathers. This is a nationwide crisis of enormous proportion.”

“The lives of thousands of children and mothers have been irreparably harmed by family courts across our nation,” says Joyanna Silberg, Ph.D., executive vice-president of The Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence, another national organizations supporting the petition. “The years of trauma and psychological abuse because of the courts’ failings result in lasting emotional damage to the children they are supposed to protect.”

Studies of gender bias in the courts, conducted in the 1980’s and 90’s, found disturbing trends of courts minimizing or excusing men’s violence against women, and favoring the abusers.  In 1990 the United States Congress passed a resolution recommending the prohibition of giving joint or sole custody to abusers.  Seventeen years later, the practice continues unabated.  Ten years ago today, leading national organizations were joined by  members of Congress in a protest in Washington D.C. to again raise awareness about the problems in family courts.  Today, petitioners say, the problem is systemic and widespread in family law courts across the nation.

The petition seeks a finding from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the U.S. has violated the Declaration of the Rights and Responsibilities of Man and the Charter of the Organization of American States and a statement of the steps that the U.S. must take to comply with its human rights obligations in regards to battered women and children in child custody cases.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was created in 1959 and is expressly authorized to examine allegations of human rights violations by members of the Organization of American States, which include the United States. It also carries out on-site visits to observe the general human rights situations in all 35 member states of the Organization of American States and to investigate specific allegations of violations of Inter-American human rights treaties. Its charge is to promote the observance and the defense of human rights in the Americas.

Dianne Post, a 1980 graduate of the University of Wisconsin law school, has worked on issues of gender based violence since 1976.  In addition to private practice and legal aid, she has taught legal classes and been a consultant working or living in Russia, Cambodia, Hungary and some dozen other countries. She is currently in Vladivostok, Russia.

In addition to The Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence, other national organizations supporting the international lawsuit include: National Organization for Women and the NOW Foundation, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Justice For Children, National Family Court Watch Project, Legal Momentum, Family Violence Prevention Fund, National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, Domestic Violence Report, Sidran Traumatic Stress Institute, and the National Center on Sexual and Domestic Violence. The petition is supported by many state organizations as well.

In December 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a petition against the United States with the Inter American Commission on Human Rights for their failure to protect Jessica Gonzales’ three children from their abusive father, who murdered them.  Their petition, the first of its kind, asserted that domestic violence victims have the right to be protected by the state from the violent acts of their abusers.

          For additional information, contact:                                     

                     Irene Weiser, Stop Family Violence                              

         iw@stopfamilyviolence.org 

International Tribunal to Hear Colorado Woman’s Case
 
Her daughters, Rebecca, age 10, Katheryn, age eight and Leslie, age seven, were killed when local police failed to enforce a restraining order against her estranged husband.
 

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Holds U.S. Responsible for Protecting Domestic Violence Victims (10/9/2007)

International Tribunal to Hear Colorado Woman’s Case
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: media@aclu.org
NEW YORK – Jessica Lenahan (formerly Gonzales), whose three daughters were kidnapped by her estranged husband and killed, and whose domestic violence protection claims were rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, will finally get her day in court. In the first decision of its kind, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) ruled on Friday that it will hear her case. The American Civil Liberties Union and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic represent Lenahan.
The IACHR, an international human rights tribunal based in Washington, D.C., found that countries in the Americas, including the U.S., are responsible under the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man for protecting victims of domestic violence. The IACHR also found that Lenahan had unsuccessfully exhausted all domestic legal avenues available to her.
"This is a historic decision," said Lenora Lapidus, Director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. "It sends the message, loud and clear, that the United States is subject to and must enforce the international legal protections of victims of domestic violence."
When the IACHR fully considers the case, it will decide whether the U.S. and state of Colorado violated Lenahan's and her children's human rights, specifically the rights to life, non-discrimination, family life/unity, due process, and to petition the government, as well as the rights of domestic violence victims and their children to special protections.
"We couldn’t have hoped for a better decision," said Steven Watt, an attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program. "We are optimistic that the Inter-American Commission will finally bring justice Lenahan and her little girls."
Lenahan was living in Colorado when her three young daughters, Rebecca, age 10, Katheryn, age eight and Leslie, age seven, were killed when local police failed to enforce a restraining order against her estranged husband. The girls were abducted by their father and although Lenahan repeatedly called the police telling them of her fears for the safety of her daughters, the police failed to respond. Several hours later, Lenahan's husband drove to the police station with a gun and opened fire. The police shot and killed him, and then discovered the bodies of the three girls in the back of his pickup truck.
Lenahan's case is the first individual complaint by a victim of domestic violence to be brought against the United States for international human rights violations.
Lenahan filed a lawsuit against the police, but in June 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court found that she had no constitutional right to police enforcement of her restraining order. In December 2005, she filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, saying that the inaction of the police and the Supreme Court’s decision violated her human rights.
"When the home country fails to protect the rights of its own citizens, international tribunals are another means to seek justice," said Caroline Bettinger-Lopez of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic. "The Inter-American Commission’s decisions have significant international and moral weight."
Lenahan has come to epitomize victims of domestic violence in the United States who all too often lack advocates within the law enforcement community. The Violence Against Women Act was recently amended to include a provision for funding of "Jessica Gonzales Victim Assistants," individuals dedicated to liaising between victims of domestic violence and law enforcement. The positions are so named in recognition of Lenahan's tragedy. States that receive these grants can use some of the money to fund the positions, but few states, including Colorado, have availed themselves of the option.
"The IACHR’s ruling will help victims of domestic violence across the Americas," said Lapidus. "They now can seek redress for abuse when their own countries’ police departments and government agencies fail to help them."
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was created in 1959 and is expressly authorized to examine allegations of human rights violations by members of the Organization of American States, which includes the United States. It also conducts on-site visits to observe the general human rights situations in all 35 member-states of the Organization of American States and to investigate specific allegations of violations of Inter-American human rights treaties and other legal instruments. Its charge is to promote the observance and the defense of human rights in the Americas.
Lenahan is represented by Lapidus, Araceli Martinez-Olguin and Emily Martin of the ACLU Women’s Rights Program, Watt of the ACLU Human Rights Program and Bettinger-Lopez of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic.
More information is available online at:
www.aclu.org/womensrights/violence/gonzalesvusa.html

Rest in Peace
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Rebecca , Katheryn and Leslie

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