Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.E-mail: email@example.com
Sometimes, only her hairdresser knows for sure. That used to be a coy ad slogan referring to whether or not a woman colored her hair. The same phrase, however, could apply to victims of domestic violence. Abused women may be too frightened or embarrassed to tell anyone about their plight, but they might let down their guard around a person they see regularly who isn't a part of their family or social circle. Attorneys general in several states are taking advantage of the relationship that hairstylists often develop with their clients as a way to reach out to battered women and let them know that help is available beyond a sympathetic ear during a half-hour haircut.
Virginia was one of the first states to implement a program called "Cut Out Domestic Violence." Since the summer of 2003, there have been at least half-a-dozen training seminars around the state where practicing cosmetologists learn to read the warning signs of abuse, whether it's bruising or negative changes in a woman's personality.
Beauticians are not encouraged to get involved in the domestic situation or call the police. Their role is to be armed with information and to tell women whom to call if they want assistance. "We know that statistically, most women spend more time with their hairstylist than with, say, their doctor," says Tim Murtaugh, spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore. "It may be one of the few times in their daily lives that they are away from their abuser." And it's one of only a few lines of work where the professionals get up close to their clients on a regular basis.
Florida, which had 120,000 reported cases of domestic violence in 2003, began sponsoring a similar initiative last April. Attorney General Charlie Crist was able to secure $350,000 from settlements in cases brought by his office and used $100,000 for training cosmetologists. The other $250,000 goes toward providing generators for shelters for abused women in case hurricanes or other disasters hit. It could be very dangerous for these women to have to leave a shelter and end up back where a batterer can find them.
The chilling warning on the Web site of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence makes clear the difficulty these women face: "Your abuser may monitor your Internet use and may be able to view your computer activity. If you have reason to believe that your computer is not secure, you may wish to use a computer in another location that your abuser does not have access to." The coalition offers shelter, counseling and more, but many women don't know how to find such services or are too worn-down to try.
That's why the Attorney General's Office decided to partner with hair care professionals. Crist, who six years ago was deputy secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, knows that there are 8,000 beauty salons and 55,000 licensed technicians around the state. Having three sisters who have patronized the same beautician for years, he also recognized that women often feel comfortable opening up to their stylist. "It just made sense," he says. "Any opportunity to reach out to more people is a good idea."
Training seminars include information about the prevalence of domestic violence in Florida, the signs of domestic violence and how to discuss domestic violence with clients. Participants receive cards and flyers for their salons, as well as pens and emery boards publicizing the state domestic violence coalition and giving information on how to contact the agency.
Because of the private nature of the crime, state officials don't expect to learn how many abused women are helped by the program, but Crist notes that anecdotally the response has been good.
Idaho started its program in the fall, scheduling 24 training seminars. Statistics there show that domestic violence is on the rise and that 75 percent of victims are female. Although the training was initially designed for current professionals, classes are being added to the curriculum for those just getting their licenses.
In addition, because battered women often are prevented by their abusers from accessing their home telephone or buying a cell phone, Virginia partners with Verizon Wireless to collect and refurbish old cell phones and distribute them to shelters. "People change cell phones all the time," says Murtaugh. "Rather than gather dust or become a large paperweight, they can bring them to us."
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