Gabby Petito’s Family Wants to Address ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’

Joe Petito, whose daughter went missing in 2021, said the phrase upset him—until he realized "there’s a hierarchy when it comes to missing person fliers being shared."

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Gabby Petito’s Family Wants to Address ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’

In the fall of 2021, the disappearance of 22-year-old Gabby Petito grabbed national attention, particularly on social media, where true crime influencers reported drawing millions of views on their videos about her case. Shortly after Petito’s parents, Joe Petito and Nicole Schmidt, reported their daughter missing on Sept. 11, her body was found in a campground in Wyoming; a coroner found that Petito’s death was homicide by strangulation. Weeks later, Petito’s partner, Brian Laundrie, was found dead in Florida with a backpack that contained what the FBI characterized as a note “claiming responsibility” for Petito’s death.

Now, her family is speaking out, specifically about the attention her disappearance and death received. In an interview in People published on Sunday, Joe Petito describes the way he initially struggled with conversations about his daughter’s case, particularly claims that the reaction to her disappearance was rooted in “missing white woman syndrome”—that is, the selective, often outsized attention paid to missing person cases involving young, white, upper-middle-class women or girls. But he said he eventually came to understand the truth at the heart of the term: “There’s a hierarchy when it comes to missing person fliers being shared. Kids go first, then white women and then women of color.”

The term “missing white woman syndrome” isn’t about devaluing the lives of missing white women, but recognizing a racialized double standard in whose lives are valued and deemed worthy of attention and care. For example, in just the state of Wyoming, where Petito was killed, 710 Indigenous people—primarily women and girls—are known to be missing. According to the National Crime Information Center, Native American people are reported missing at higher rates than the general U.S. public, with at least 9,575 reported missing cases in 2020, per the National Crime Information Center.

“We want to help all missing people. If the media doesn’t continue doing this for all the people then that’s a shame because it’s not just Gabby that deserved that,” Joe said. The Gabby Petito Foundation, which he and Schmidt started after Petito’s death, has since worked to amplify the Black and Missing Foundation, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Relatives, and the National Domestic Violence Hotline. According to People, the foundation donated $100,000 to these groups in 2022. Earlier this month at CrimeCon 2024, the Petito family turned their spotlight to Vangie Randall-Shorty, who spoke about the unsolved murder of her son, Zachariah, on a Navajo reservation in 2020.

In February, the Petito family reached a settlement for an undisclosed amount with Laundrie’s family. But their lawsuit against the Moab Police Department, first filed in 2022, remains ongoing. Days before Laundrie killed Petito, police officers pulled them over in Utah after witnesses reported seeing the couple fighting; at least one witness said that they saw Laundrie hit Petito. Police did not interview this witness and instead determined Petito to be the aggressor, and they put Laundrie up in a hotel for the night while Petito slept in the couple’s shared van in the desert. One of the two officers who pulled Laundrie and Petito over had a history of allegedly committing domestic violence, including allegations that he threatened to kill his ex-girlfriend when he worked at the police department in another Utah town.

The Petito family is suing the Moab Police Department for $50 million for wrongful death. In March, the family filed an amended complaint in their wrongful death suit, specifically alleging that the officers failed in their duty to recognize the warning signs of domestic violence, leading to Petito’s death. “We will never stop seeking justice for Gabby and working for the protection of other victims of domestic violence,” Schmidt said in a statement at the time.

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