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Everyone knows a Gabby Petito

Gabby Petito appears in police body camera video

Gabby Petito appears in police body camera video after she and fiance Brian Laundrie were pulled over near the entrance to Utah's Arches National Parkon Aug. 12. Credit: Moab Police Department

Gabrielle Petito, the young Blue Point woman who disappeared under murky circumstances at the end of the summer, reawakened America to the ugly reality of intimate partner violence or, as it is more commonly known, domestic violence.

When Teton County, Wyoming coroner Dr. Brent Blue confirmed that Petito died of strangulation, he also stated, "Unfortunately, this is only one of many deaths around the country, of people who are involved in domestic violence." Her fiance, her intimate partner, was a person of interest and later found dead in Florida. While authorities have not connected him to Petito’s killing, and many questions remain, we know that strangulation assaults are common in abusive relationships.

The case of Gabby Petito is neither rare nor isolated. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that one in four women in the United States are victimized by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous women experience these types of crimes at rates substantially higher than white women — as do gender and sexual minorities.

Abusive men commonly practice strangulation, sometimes erroneously referred to as choking, against their female partners during assaults. It is an extreme expression of the power imbalance. Victims who experience strangulation are seven times more likely to be killed by their partner than a victim of abuse who hasn’t been strangled. For those who survive strangulation, common outcomes are long-term damage to the airway, arteries in the neck, and the brain due to lack of oxygen. Additionally, violent episodes of strangulation can include repeated banging of the victim’s head against a wall or object causing a traumatic brain injury.

Many women who survive assaults to their head, neck, and face are left with symptoms of undiagnosed and unrecognized brain injury. These include cognitive, emotional, and physical symptoms like headaches; trouble with vision, balance, concentration, sleeping, and memory; and depression or anxiety rarely attributed to the violence itself. More than 8 in 10 survivors accessing services in Ohio reported having experienced both strangulation and head trauma by their partner — most repeatedly.

Brain injuries can cause widespread and life-altering symptoms, including permanent disability. A recent autopsy report demonstrated signs of advanced brain degeneration in a 29-year-old woman who died from partner abuse.

Enormous barriers and challenges exist when leaving an abusive relationship. It is estimated that it can take seven tries before someone is successful in leaving. The impact of brain injuries only makes it harder to put together a plan to escape safely. Three-quarters of intimate partner violence homicides occur when a woman attempts to leave or after she has left. Efforts at prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation must reach more women, more easily, without financial burden, while seeking prosecution of the abusers.

The strangulation of Gabby Petito is a tragedy occurring every day; we all need to do more to stop it. If someone is unsafe in their relationship, call the national domestic violence hotline at 800-799-SAFE, your local hotlines, or thehotline.org to chat with a domestic violence advocate. For more information on brain injuries, go to www.odvn.org/brain-injury to download free resources in English and Spanish. These resources can help with difficult conversations about relationships and empower those trying to help survivors.

You are not alone. There is help.

This guest essay reflects the views of global Neurological Epidemic in Abusive Trauma (gNEAT) members Kathleen Monahan, Stony Brook University; Dorothy Kozlowski and Sonya Crabtree-Nelson, DePaul University; Eve Valera, Harvard Medical School; Rachel Ramirez, Ohio Domestic Violence Network; Julianna Nemeth, The Ohio State University; Jonathan Lifshitz and Hirsch Handmaker, CACTIS Foundation; and Kate Lawler, NorthShore Hospital.

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