When Jessica Gonzales’ three daughters disappeared while playing in their Castle Rock, Colorado, front yard in 1999, she knew her estranged husband Simon had taken them and they were in grave danger.
Though Gonzales informed the local police that the courts had issued an order of protection against her husband, the police made no attempt to retrieve the children, despite a 1994 Colorado law that required police to enforce such an order when there’s probable cause of a violation. In a 60 Minutes interview six years later, Castle Rock police chief Tony Lane was asked why they didn’t attempt enforcement. He responded, “What safer place can children be than with one of the parents, the mother or the father?”
Hours after the abduction, Simon Gonzales was killed by officers as he stormed the Castle Rock police station firing a rifle. Police found the girls — aged 10, 8 and 7 — in his truck. An autopsy concluded that he had shot all three daughters in the head after leaving an amusement park.
In the order of protection obtained by Jessica Gonzales, the court only permitted the father to spend alternate weekends with his children and one prearranged dinner during the week. Taking the children without telling his wife was a direct violation of the order, but police around the country often ignore such cases or make them a low priority.
For female victims of domestic violence, the most life-threatening period is when a mother with children is taking steps to leave her partner. Yet in a survey of family court professionals, they said this is when they knew the least about the potential danger.
“High rates of domestic violence exist in families referred for child custody evaluations,” a 2011 study by researchers at the University of Michigan School of Social Work found in a review of scientific literature. “These evaluations can produce potentially harmful outcomes, including the custody of children being awarded to a violent parent, unsupervised or poorly supervised visitation between violent parents and their children, and mediation sessions that increase danger to domestic violence victims.”
After surveying more than 1,000 court professionals, including 465 custody evaluators, researchers concluded, “the least common area (of knowledge) — especially among judges, evaluators and private attorneys — were post-separation violence, screening and assessing dangerousness.”
Gonzales filed a lawsuit against Castle Rock police for not protecting her children, which resulted in a 2005 Supreme Court decision that ruled domestic violence victims are not entitled to have protection orders enforced. In 2011, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) investigated the case and concluded that the United States had denied Gonzales justice.
Because so many victims of domestic violence are not finding justice in U.S. courts, some are turning to international human rights organizations such as the Inter-American Commission.
A pending IACHR petition alleges that the U.S. courts, by frequently awarding child custody to abusers and child molesters, has failed to protect the life, security and other human rights of abused mother 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,” petition author Dianne Post, an international attorney, said in a 2007 press release. “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 U.S. children.”
The complaint was filed by 10 mothers, a victimized child who is now an adult and national and state child safety organizations. Post wrote in a Huffington Post article, “These petitioners have tried to protect their children. It is the courts that have prohibited them. The cost to both child and parent is overwhelming and devastating.”
An IACHR spokesperson said the complaints take several years to investigate and the U.S. will be given time to respond before any findings are made public.
Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens was one of only two dissenters in Castle Rock v. Gonzales. He wrote in the dissent that the Colorado law was passed to address a “crisis of underenforcement” because police departments around the nation were treating domestic violence as a private family matter and only making an arrest as a last resort. “[U]nder the statute, the police were required to provide enforcement; they lacked the discretion to do nothing.”
This is the seventh in a series of articles for Daily Kos about the treatment of abused children in the U.S. family court system. M.C. Moewe is a former criminal justice and investigative reporter for several newspapers with a B.A. in journalism from the University of North Texas. Email m AT moewe.com or use this link.