Race, Disability and Coercive Control: One More Look at the Gabby Petito Case

Two features of Gabby Petito’s case have been absent from media coverage: her disability, and the myriad signs that Petito’s boyfriend was subjecting her to a form of domestic violence known as coercive control.

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Petito’s disability was central to how the system failed her prior to her death. Her case also shows what happens when law and society oversimplify domestic violence and overlook coercive control. (Instagram)

According to the CDC, domestic violence is a leading cause of death for women, with Black and indigenous women at the highest risk. Trans women experience shocking rates of deadly violence at the hands of intimate partners; disabled women, too, face heightened risk. Yet in the absence of immense fame and unprecedented public pressure along the lines of #MuteRKelly, most Black victims suffer in relative obscurity with long odds for accessing the often-meager justice our criminal laws have to offer them. Indigenous, trans, disabled and other marginalized victims are similarly overlooked and forgotten. 

Over the past month, one case that has received intense attention from media and the public is the disappearance and murder of #VanLife influencer Gabby Petito. Prolific coverage of Petito’s case has renewed criticism that white women’s victimhood consistently eclipses Black and Brown victims’ stories and reveals a racial empathy gap. Undoubtedly, Petito’s whiteness helped propel her case into the spotlight and continues to fuel public interest in her story. In addition to valuable observations from activists, there is ample scientific evidence that “Missing White Woman Syndrome” is real. It is long past time to elevate the stories of Black and Brown victims and support the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) movement.

Notwithstanding these valid critiques and necessary calls for more equitable news coverage, one feature of Petito’s case has been strikingly absent from media coverage: her disability. While Petito described herself to Moab police as having “really bad” obsessive compulsive disorder, which would almost certainly meet the legal definition of disability, that aspect of her identity has been entirely erased from the national conversation. Yet Petito’s disability was central to how the system failed her prior to her death. And that failure reveals important truths about obstacles survivors face when interacting with authorities who seem determined to disbelieve them and unwilling to acknowledge coercive control dynamics.

On August 12, about two weeks before she was killed, Petito spoke to police about her relationship with Brian Laundrie. A witness had called 911 to report a man slapping a woman and gave the couple’s license plate number. Officers caught up to the couple, interviewed them, and quickly concluded that Petito was not the victim of domestic violence, but the perpetrator. Careful review of body-worn camera footage, the 911 call, and the police report, points to a very different conclusion. Those records show myriad signs that Laundrie was subjecting Petito to a particularly dangerous form of domestic violence known as coercive control.

Coercive control is a system of domination imposed on a current or former partner through physical, psychological, sexual and other means. A coercive controlling abuser may dictate every detail of a victim’s life, such as whether, when, and how the victim eats, sleeps, dresses, works and interacts with others. Many survivors note that the effects of psychological abuse last much longer than cuts and bruises. Abusers often select victims who are particularly vulnerable to isolation and gaslighting; frequently that means victims with one or more marginalized identities. Those marginalized identities become tools of coercive control as they attenuate a victim’s access to resources and interventions.

Coercive control is a known risk factor for lethal violence. Although there is a movement to make our laws more responsive to this dynamic, coercive control is only recognized as a form of domestic violence in a few states.

Unfortunately, both law and society tend to oversimplify domestic violence and overlook coercive control, leading many serious cases of abuse to go undetected by law enforcement and courts. This affects victims not only in the criminal justice system, but also child custody disputes, and other legal matters.

As a lawyer who has represented hundreds of survivors, I have seen this one-dimensional understanding of domestic violence combine with racism, sexism, ablism and cisheterosexism to harm survivors—particularly Black and Brown mothers—within the legal system. Despite decades of research and a strong scientific understanding of coercive control, police, lawyers, and judges do a poor job identifying and addressing it.


As a lawyer who has represented hundreds of survivors, I have seen this one-dimensional understanding of domestic violence combine with racism, sexism, ablism and cisheterosexism to harm survivors—particularly Black and Brown mothers—within the legal system.


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At U.N. Women’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in 2016. (UN Women / Khristina Godfrey)

Details from the August 12 incident combine to show a picture of Laundrie exerting coercive control over Petito. The most salient of these details is that the altercation reportedly escalated after Laundrie locked Petito out of the van in which the couple resided. The high that day was 97 degrees. Petito was over 2,000 miles from her home in Long Island. The couple apparently knew no one in Moab and had no money for a hotel room. Laundrie admitted Petito was afraid he would leave her in Moab. A witness noted Laundrie hung Petito’s backpack on the back of the van—a move that could have underscored Petito’s fear of being abandoned.

Instead of recognizing this as a classic example of coercive control, police honed in on scratches on Laundrie’s face. He said Petito inflicted them while trying to get back into the van. Police determined Petito was the primary aggressor because she “clawed” her way into the van through the driver’s window after finding all the doors locked. Nowhere in the police report nor the video footage did any officer seem to consider why Petito was so desperate to get into the van or why Laundrie felt entitled to lock her out in the first place.


Nowhere in the police report nor the video footage did any officer seem to consider why Petito was so desperate to get into the van or why Laundrie felt entitled to lock her out in the first place.


Like many victims, Petito did not say that Laundrie abused her. In speaking to officers, Petito blamed her own OCD, anxiety and “meanness” for the conflict. It is not uncommon for victims of coercive control to give chaotic and even ambivalent accounts of their experiences. Victims may blame themselves or their mental health, or confess to being too sensitive. This can result from trauma’s effects on the brain, internalized ableism, and gaslighting which decimates a victim’s self-worth and sense of self.

Police ultimately seized on Petito’s disability as the crux of the conflict between her and Laundrie on August 12. In one particularly troubling moment of the body-worn camera footage, Laundrie laughed with officers as he suggested Petito was “crazy.” In the police report, officers extensively documented their impression that Petito was overcome with emotion and tears as she was questioned. This vignette provides a disturbing glance into the prejudice and skepticism that survivors—particularly marginalized survivors—face when interacting with law enforcement. Rather than correctly identifying any of the numerous signs of coercive control, officers credulously accepted and fortified a narrative that blamed Petito’s mental illness for the incident.


Laundrie laughed with officers as he suggested Petito was “crazy.” This provides a disturbing glance into the prejudice and skepticism that survivors—particularly marginalized survivors—face when interacting with law enforcement.


As details of Petito’s death come to light, it seems increasingly likely that she lost her life to coercive controlling domestic violence. The erasure of Petito’s disability, even as it played a central role in her slipping through the cracks, speaks to a widespread erasure of disabled narratives. With so many eyes on this case, it is worth pausing to recognize that the failure to identify Petito as a victim on August 12 is just one example of a deeper problem—a problem that disproportionately affects Black, indigenous, trans and disabled women.

Until coercive control becomes the lens through which we understand and respond to domestic violence, and until we recognize how marginalization catalyzes coercive control, we can expect the system to continue to fail victims like Petito, and the thousands of others whose deaths go unnoticed in the national news.

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About

Gillian Chadwick is an associate professor of law at Washburn University School of Law and a former Women’s Law & Public Policy fellow. As a practicing attorney, she has been representing survivors of gender-based violence for over a decade. Her research interests include gender-based violence, family law and immigration law.