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When the Child You've Raised Is a Batterer

What if Brian Laundrie was your son?

Key points

  • Twenty-two-year-old Gabby Petito was found dead on September 19, 2021.
  • Gabby Petito's boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, is suspected of strangling her to death in late August.
  • The parents of Brian Laundrie have not cooperated with police.
  • Family and friends of intimate partner violence perpetrators have a choice: They can enable their loved one or hold them accountable.
copyright free, Gabby Petito instagram
Source: copyright free, Gabby Petito instagram

If you’ve been in a coma or living under a rock over the past month and haven’t heard about the Gabby Petito/Brian Laundrie case, here’s a quick summary:

On July 2, 2021, 22-year-old Gabby left with her 23-year-old fiancé’ Brian to go on a three-month cross-country camping trip in a van. They planned to visit several national parks. Over 60,000 Instagrammers were virtually hitchhiking along, vicariously enjoying the pictures Gabby and Brian often posted.

On September 11, Gabby’s mother reported her daughter missing. They told police they hadn’t heard from Gabby since late August. Her last text didn’t sound like her. They had tried for a couple of weeks to reach Brian’s parents, texting and calling them repeatedly. Crickets.

Gabby’s parents didn’t know it but Brian had been back at home in Florida, living with his parents, since September 1st. He’d returned with Gabby’s van but no Gabby. While Gabby’s parents were getting increasingly frantic, Brian had been mowing the lawn and riding bikes with his mom. His family had even gone on a three-day camping trip.

Once police got involved, Chris and Roberta Laundrie, Brian’s parents, lawyered Brian up. They refused to talk to police. On September 17, they reported their son missing, saying it had been three days since he had left to go on a hike. On September 19, Gabby Petito’s remains were found in Wyoming. Her death was ruled a homicide. On Wednesday, October 13, the coroner said Gabby had been strangled to death. Brian Laundrie is still missing.

Allegations of Domestic Violence and Cover-Ups

During the police search for Gabby, allegations of domestic violence cropped up. On August 12, a bystander in Moab, Utah called police to report a domestic disturbance in which a “gentleman was slapping a girl.” Witnesses reported that, on August 27, they had watched Brian Laundrie verbally abusing female staff at The Merry Piglet, a Tex-Mex restaurant in Jackson, Wyoming. Gabby had tearfully apologized several times and seemed extremely upset.

Gabby’s best friend, Rose Davis, describes the relationship between Brian and Gabby as “toxic” and said Brian was jealous and controlling. She alleges, for instance, that Brian once hid Gabby’s credit cards and ID to prevent the two of them from going out line dancing and that he didn’t like her working somewhere he couldn’t keep an eye on her.

Brian’s parents, Chris and Roberta Laundrie, have not said a word. But a lot has been said about them. They have been condemned by Gabby’s parents. They are being crucified on social media. And, in many respects, understandably so.

As a parent, I understand the instinctive desire to protect your child, no matter how old and no matter what happened. We don’t know what Brian told them. Did he tell them she was alive when he left her? Or that he was defending himself during a fight and accidentally killed her?

If there were extenuating circumstances, running is only going to make the situation worse. And, if he lied, the recent announcement that Gabby was strangled is going to make living in denial a lot harder. On the other hand, maybe they’ve known the truth all along.

Either way, I can’t wrap my head around ignoring another parent’s frantic texts and phone calls for almost two weeks. Gabby lived with the Laundrie family for almost two years; didn’t her life mean anything? Living in the same house, they had an up-close-and-personal view of Brian and Gabby’s relationship. What did they see? What did they hear? What did they know?

And what should they have done? Here are my thoughts as a mother and a psychologist.

When Your Child Is a Batterer

There’s a lot of help for parents whose teenager or grown child is being abused. Not so much if your child is the abuser. Maybe there’s the assumption that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, i.e., a child who witnesses domestic violence grows up to perpetrate it. And that’s sometimes true but not always. Not even most of the time.

One study, for example, found that a third of the 1500 men court-ordered into treatment for domestic violence had either been abused as a child or routinely witnessed someone beat the hell out of their mom. Perhaps not surprisingly, domestic violence perpetrators with their own history of childhood abuse tended to have more dysfunctional attitudes about how women should be treated and how acceptable it is to use violence to solve problems.

But two-thirds had not been raised that way. Neither were my two boys. I have four adult children around Gabby and Brian’s age. Their story hits close to home for me as both a mom and a forensic psychologist. And it raises some tough personal questions.

What would I do if I found out my 26-year-old son was abusing his girlfriend? Would it matter if the stakes were high? Would I have the guts to turn him in or call the police?

Here’s what I believe (and pray) I would do:

  • Make sure his girlfriend was safe. If I witnessed it firsthand, call the police. If she confided in me, ask her how I can best support her. Provide her with resources (names and numbers of women’s crisis centers, mental health professionals who specialize in working with battered women).
  • Find someone who understands and has worked with domestic violence perpetrators. I might get a referral from a local women’s crisis center or the district attorney’s office. Yes, I am a psychologist and know quite a bit about domestic violence but I am also a mother who loves her son. I would need someone with an objective view who could help me know how to best handle the situation without enabling my son or throwing him under the bus.
  • Talk to my son. He would already know that what he did was wrong. Make sure he knows that if I know of it happening again, I will call the police. And, yes, I will also show up on visiting day if he’s arrested.
  • Get him the best help I could afford. Perhaps there are underlying problems or skills deficits that contribute to his behavior. Does he need to learn to control his anger? Does he have a drug or alcohol problem? Those can be addressed, too. But battering someone is a choice and that is something that must be directly addressed.
  • Love him unconditionally.

The Bottom Line

There’s a lot we don’t know about this case, including details of any domestic violence. But we do know that thousands of women are hurt each year by someone they love. And the people doing the hurting have friends and family members who, by speaking up and taking action, can give them the best chance they have for changing their ways and becoming real men.