By Katherine A. Greenier, Director, Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Rights Project, ACLU of Virginia
While October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, it may be the grim August murder of Crystal Ragin and her three children in Newport News that serves as the year’s most dramatic reminder that more must be done to protect women from violence.
As reported in the Daily Press, on August 19 a Newport News sheriff's deputy arrived at John Moses Ragin's house to serve an order issued by a judge the day before protecting John’s wife, Crystal Ragin. However, when the deputy got there, he found Crystal and John’s three stepchildren stabbed to death. The case has raised serious questions about whether the police department waited too long – 24 hours – to serve the protective order.
Only two days before the murder of Crystal and her children, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found in favor of a petition brought by Jessica Lenahan (formerly Gonzales), a survivor of domestic violence whose three daughters were killed after police failed to enforce a restraining order she had obtained against her abusive husband.
In June 1999, Lenahan’s three young daughters were abducted by her estranged husband and killed after the Colorado police refused to enforce a restraining order against him. Although Lenahan repeatedly called the police, telling them of her fears for her daughters' safety, they failed to respond. Hours later, Lenahan’s husband drove his pick-up truck to the police department and opened fire. He was shot dead by the police. The slain bodies of the three girls were subsequently discovered in the back of his pickup truck.
Lenahan filed a lawsuit against the police, but in June 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that she had no Constitutional right to police enforcement of her restraining order. She then 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.
The Commission published its decision on August 17, 2011, holding that the United States violated Lenahan and her daughters’ human rights by failing to adopt reasonable measures to protect her and her daughters from her abusive husband’s acts of violence, when the police should have known that they were at risk of being harmed.
This decision is the first time an international tribunal has ruled on the United States’ legal obligations towards an identified domestic violence survivor. The decision vindicates Lenahan’s 12 years of fighting for justice, and affirms that the police should have done more to protect her and her children from her abusive husband.
The Commission’s decision – which finds that gender-based violence is one of the most extreme and pervasive forms of discrimination against women and girls, and that the United States engages in this discrimination when it fails in its duty to protect those at risk – creates an opportunity for advocates to hold police departments and other governmental bodies accountable when they fail to proactively address domestic violence.
Sadly, the tragedies that befell Lenahan and Crystal Ragin are not isolated. Social stigma, patriarchal values, and institutional neglect and resistance have in many ways perpetuated the treatment of domestic violence as a private matter undeserving of a robust law enforcement response. The result: nothing short of an epidemic.
When authorities do not enforce protective orders, abusers feel they can act with impunity. An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. Every day more than three women in the U.S. are killed by their intimate partners. One in four women in the U.S. will be abused by a partner at some point in their lives. An estimated 3.3 million children each year are exposed to violence against their mothers or female caretakers. Domestic violence is the single most common precursor to child death in the U.S. The failure of police to enforce the law directly contributes to the epidemic of domestic violence in the United States.
The Commission’s decision requires that the U.S. enact comprehensive reforms at the local, state and federal levels to ensure that victims of domestic violence receive adequate protection from their abusers and makes clear that the government has a duty to protect domestic violence victims, including through the enforcement of restraining orders. Protective orders are critically important to victims of domestic violence, but they are just pieces of paper unless they are enforced.
While state and federal laws exist to provide some protections and remedies for victims of domestic violence, human rights law requires that responsible government entities, including law enforcement agencies, take a more proactive role in preventing and responding to the epidemic of such violence.
The Newport News Sheriff’s Office took one such step towards progress shortly after Crystal Ragin and her children’s murder by changing its policy to improve how quickly protective orders are served. Deputies no longer wait until the next day to serve orders that were issued late in the afternoon; they do so the evening they were issued.
The cases of Ragin and Lenahan remind us that both Virginia and the United States still have some progress to make to fulfill their human rights obligations. Law and policy reforms to improve police protocols and directives for responding to domestic violence are needed to ensure accountability when police departments and other governmental bodies fail to proactively address domestic violence.
Additional Information: Hear first hand from Lenahan about her landmark victory at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and why she urges the United States to "stop domestic violence in its tracks" in this video.