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Zornio: Gabby Petito’s tragic death should inspire changes to domestic violence policy

One in four women are victims of domestic violence in America, but change is possible

By now, most people have heard the story. A young woman and her fiance were on a cross-country van-life trip. Weeks later, only one of them returned. 

Following a painstaking search to find Gabrielle (Gabby) Petito, the 22-year-old was confirmed dead by homicide on Tuesday. Her fiancé and “person of interest,” Brian Laundrie, has not cooperated in the investigation. His location remains unknown to police at this time.

For millions of women facing domestic violence, the situation felt all too familiar. 

Trish Zornio (Photo by Holly Hursley Photography)

As reports of the couple’s tumultuous interactions were released — including body cam footage from a witness call to police — experts say there may be a learning opportunity for what domestic violence looks like. Although police identified the young woman as the aggressor, some suggest she may have been the victim, overlooked by a lack of training in responders.

This is where Gabby’s story — that of a young social media influencer who attracted the eyes of millions — might help shed light on the plight faced by women and girls nationwide. 

In America, an estimated one in four women experience domestic violence. Seldom do these cases spur intense interest, and assistance for victims remains in short supply. As of late, tensions from the pandemic have significantly increased partner violence, further limiting access to critical services.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence has already laid out a series of federal priorities for Congress. These include a reauthorization and strengthening of the Violence Against Women Act, restoring the Crime Victims Fund, significant investments in survivor protections, non-carceral criminal justice access and housing opportunities. 

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In Colorado, the Attorney General’s office issued a report in 2020 for domestic violence in 2019. The policy suggestions here add enhanced programs for children of domestic violence, enhanced lethality assessments, prohibition of firearms for perpetrators and improved coordination of cases between agencies.

But even more can likely be done.

In light of Gabby’s case, a savvy politician might seek the support from her family to create a “Gabby’s Bill” movement for domestic violence policy. These efforts could place emphasis on programs aimed at assisting women exiting toxic relationships, including domestic violence training in policing and better access to safe shelters — all areas that might have saved the young woman’s life had they been in place.

The matter is also helping to highlight racial and ethnic disparities in how missing persons and suspected violence cases are handled. Although cases of Caucasian women are more predominantly featured, Black women are estimated to be up to 35% more likely than white women to experience domestic violence.

There also remain significant shortages of attention paid to women who have their immigration status used against them, as well as cases of indiginous missing persons. All of these experiences can be greatly improved with intersectional policy.

Two additional, yet rarely discussed, components to end domestic violence include emotional intelligence education and improved data tracking.

By leveraging enhanced early childhood education, it may be possible to help curb the underlying cause of domestic violence. Using psychology-based tools such as non-violent communication and conflict management strategies, young boys and girls can be taught how to monitor and communicate their emotional states more effectively. This might provide an overall reduction in violent tendencies long-term.

The lack of rigorous scope and study of domestic violence is also exceptionally problematic. For example, scant recent or comprehensive data is available, including for officer-involved domestic violence and employment rates. This is particularly relevant given the role of officers in domestic disputes.

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Most often cited are studies from the 1990s and earlier. Here studies show police officer families experienced violence rates at around 40%, a percentage substantially higher than in the general population. Follow-up studies in the early 2000s, followed by a New York Times analysis in 2013, indicated substantially lower rates, but the lack of robust study makes it difficult to assess accurately. This is a situation easily remedied with funding for wider tracking programs.

Certainly, Gabby’s life was cut tragically short, and there’s nothing that can bring her back. Yet if we let it, her experience could leave a legacy to help save millions of other women and girls from the same fate.


Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.


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