Opinion: There are people like Gabby Petito in every community

This police camera video provided by the Moab Police Department shows Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito talking to a police officer after police pulled over the van she was traveling in near the entrance to Arches National Park on Aug. 12.

This police camera video provided by the Moab Police Department shows Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito talking to a police officer after police pulled over the van she was traveling in near the entrance to Arches National Park on Aug. 12.

Associated Press

If you are like me, you’ve been disturbed and saddened by the death of Gabby Petito, the vibrant young Long Island native found murdered in the Wyoming wilderness last month weeks after her fiance returned alone from a cross-country van trip they embarked on together.

As someone who cares deeply about adults and children who have experienced the trauma of intimate partner violence, the unfolding details of this story feel eerily familiar. They begin with a relationship between Gabby and her now missing fiance that — at least on the social media surface — seemed loving and supportive, belying what was apparently a much more troubled reality.

As we begin Domestic Violence Awareness Month, my team at The Center for Family Justice is preparing for a vigil we hold every October to honor the lives of those who have lost their lives to intimate partner homicides. We will gather at the carousel at Bridgeport’s Beardsley Zoo on Oct. 14 at 6 p.m., to read the names of 19 people who have lost their lives to intimate partner violence in Connecticut since 2020.

These are victims who came from New Canaan to New London and, really, every corner of our state. Yet most of us probably don’t know their names, or the details of their stories, in the same way we have come to know about the tragic fate of Gabby Petito.

It is sad commentary that our society seems to fixate on stories that involve attractive white women who have lost their lives at the hands of those who once claimed to love and cherish them. While we don’t know exactly what happened to Gabby Petito as the FBI’s investigation into her homicide continues, the intense public interest in her case reminds me of one closer to home: The May 2019 disappearance and presumed murder of New Canaan mother of five Jennifer Dulos, which investigators have blamed on her estranged and now deceased husband Fotis. The parallels exist not only in the suspected role intimate partner violence may have played in the two women’s deaths, but also in the way their stories consumed a curious public.

While both are troubling examples of the way our culture seems to seize on the cases of a certain subset of missing or murdered women, I think there is one positive we can assign to this otherwise disturbing fixation: These stories give us a chance to amplify the need for all victims of abuse to be seen, heard, supported, believed and protected.

For here is the sober reality: There are Gabby Petitos everywhere. Abuse is happening in our communities every single day. It is happening to our coworkers, friends, relatives and neighbors. It is happening to victims young and old, rich and poor, of every race and demographic. It is happening in the rural towns we serve such as Easton and urban centers such as Bridgeport, where our nonprofit is located. The truth is domestic violence is an equal-opportunity problem of staggering proportions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in four women and one in seven men will experience physical abuse in their lifetime. The numbers are even higher for those who identify as LBGTQ. Black women are much more likely to be murdered by an intimate partner than their white counterparts. Research shows that people living with disabilities experience abuse at higher rates and are less likely to report it to law enforcement. Not surprisingly, domestic abuse is also often to blame for physical and emotional disabilities.

Last year, CFJ offered services to more than 4,000 people in the six communities we serve and experienced an 18 percent increase in demand for domestic violence services. During the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for overflow hotel shelter for victims fleeing abusive relationships in our service area increased a staggering 1,400 percent. Every day, we work with victims whose relationships have become so toxic and terrifying they fear for their lives as well as those of their children.

What stands out to me about the Petito case — as I’m sure it does to so many of us — is her youth, vitality and vulnerability. The tragedy of a woman someone taken far too soon and for no good reason seems especially tragic.

Recently, Gabby Petito’s grieving family did something extraordinary. They used their platform and their unimaginable grief to advocate for other victims and missing people everywhere. They asked the public to focus the attention on all those people because, as they said so eloquently, their lives are worthy and deserve our care and attention in the same way that Gabby’s did.

For that reason, I hope you will consider joining us at our community vigil on Oct.14. There, you will hear the names of others who have lost their lives to domestic violence and mourn them in the same way we mourn Gabby Petito. Their names deserve to be heard and their lives remembered, too.

Debra A. Greenwood is the president and CEO of The Center for Family Justice, which provides free, confidential crisis and supportive services to victims of domestic and sexual violence in Bridgeport, Easton, Fairfield, Stratford, Monroe and Trumbull.