Hairdressers learn to spot domestic abuse, offer help

December 27, 2006|By Elizabeth Mehren | Elizabeth Mehren,Los Angeles Times

BANGOR, Maine -- The new customer slipped into Janie B. Good's hair salon cautiously, as if worried that someone might see her. She was only in her 30s, but fear had etched tight lines in her face. Nervous, she told Good: "Don't cut off too much. He doesn't like my hair short."

It's your hair, Good started to tell the young woman whose tresses draped down over her shoulders. But as the client had leaned back for a shampoo, Good noticed bruises on her neck. Easing her fingers across her scalp, Good felt bumps that could have come only from being struck.

"Honey," Good recalls saying, "we need to talk."

One reason Good, 59, became a hairdresser was that she figured it offered a window into human dynamics. Now she is one of nearly 300 Maine stylists and beauty students trained to recognize signs of domestic abuse and to serve as resources for victims.

As part of a broad strategy to reduce the state's domestic violence rate, Maine public officials have identified hairdressers as new allies. These beauty professionals have been recruited not as enforcement agents, but as informed listeners who can suggest options to their clients - if they are ready to hear them.

Each year, more than half the homicides in this sparsely populated state are traced to domestic abuse. Abuse victims often balk at going to the police because they fear authorities will not act or their abusers will seek retribution. Hairdressers are seen as potentially safe confidantes.

Authorities say there is no way to quantify the results of this evolving approach. But in Maine, officials say, more and more women who call domestic violence hot lines begin by saying, "I heard about this from my hairdresser."

Hairstylists such as Good place decals on their work-station mirrors and hand out nail files printed with the number of a domestic violence hot line. Along with photos of hair and makeup, they hang posters listing warning signs of domestic abuse.

"I can't tell you how seriously I take this," Good said.

Rolling a perm at Absolute Style in Rockland, on the Maine coast, Rocki Camber said: "It is kind of an eye-opener, like, `Wow, that could be me.' Sitting right here in my chair, I've had people say, `I'm not an abused woman, I'm not beaten.'"

Then, she said, "They look at the criteria - like is their partner too suspicious? Are they not allowed to wear this type of outfit or that kind of hairstyle? Just by hanging up that poster, people identify with things that they wouldn't have thought of as abuse."

Maine's strategy is modeled on an effort in Alabama. Trolling for new ways to reduce domestic violence, two Birmingham charities came up with the idea of enlisting hairdressers. The approach was received so well locally that a board member of one of the sponsoring groups decided to fund a broader domestic-violence curriculum for stylists.

Dianne Mooney, founder of a home decor direct sales company called Southern Living at Home, joined with the National Cosmetology Association and Clairol Professional to form the Salons Against Domestic Abuse Fund. Attorneys general around the country picked up on the plan, mindful of widely documented national statistics that show that at least one in three women - and a far smaller proportion of men - will experience domestic abuse.

Clients who entrust their appearance to a beauty professional often develop a comfortable, long-lasting relationship. Hairdressers make frequent physical contact with their customers. They see their clients regularly and work on a first-name basis. The good ones know when to keep their counsel: What is shared in the salon stays in the salon.

In turn, the hairdresser can supply basic information such as the name and phone number of the nearest shelter

"We operate with an unusual bridge of trust," said Good, who works out of her home on Southport Island. "We have a direct kind of intimacy. We learn about their lives, and we form a relationship."

Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe was worried about the domestic violence rate when he heard about the plan to use hairstylists.

"The key here is not being judgmental, but supportive," he said. "These salon professionals are saying, `Here is some information,' not: `You should leave that jerk.'"

In cooperation with the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, Rowe and his staff spent a year tailoring the salon-professional curriculum to fit the needs of the state. Dozens of training sessions have taken place since the curriculum for salon professionals was unveiled in May. Some of the state's 13 cosmetology schools are considering making these anti-domestic abuse seminars mandatory.

One recent morning, about 35 students filed into the largest lecture hall at Pierre's School of Cosmetology here. Many wore the bright blue robes that identified them as beauticians-in-training.

They looked up to see two representatives from a Bangor domestic abuse shelter. When Margo Batsie and Amanda Cost asked how many students had experience with domestic violence, more than half raised their hands.

Sometimes the chain of support goes beyond the salon. One day at 2 a.m., Good found the young woman with the bruises and bumps shivering on her doorstep with her two young children. Good drove them to a shelter, hoping that, maybe, three lives could be salvaged.

Elizabeth Mehren writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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