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Cut It Out trains salon professionals to spot domestic abuse

cut it out salon girl getting bangs

By Shelly Turner

Originally published in the October 2019 Women’s Issue of Local Profile under the title “Cut It Out”

Driers blow, razors buzz, scissors snip, telephones tinkle and customers chat. Patrons pull out photos of some celebrity whose look they pine for. After some consultation and consensus, conversation sways more personal—wedding plans, relationships, career concerns. It’s a snippet of daily life for a salon professional. And once in a while, this customer-cosmetologist camaraderie presents a chance to change a life. A stylist spots a hidden bruise, an uprooted clump of hair, or the client shares an intimate, concerning bit of information. Even these heard-it-all shear-wielding counselors aren’t always sure what to do when faced with this sort of potentially serious situation. That’s what Cut It Out is for.

Thanks to a program initiated by the Collin County district attorney’s office, domestic violence experts are teaching them how to identify signs of abuse and responsibly react. 

“As a stylist working behind the chair, our business is not only creating beautiful hair,” says Bella Couture Salon and Boutique owner Mary Ann Little. “It’s also [about] building relationships with our clients.”

That is why members of the Bella Couture staff plan to participate in an upcoming event focused on training Collin County cosmetologists to identify and safely assist victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, called Cut It Out. 

Mary Ann’s salon—situated inside a transformed public library in the historic downtown area of Melissa, Texas—is widely praised for its good-natured, shrewd and innovative staff. Mary Ann, who trained in European Haircutting artistry in New York and opened her own salon in 1996, boasts an impressive clientele roster. (Think Dallas Cowboys players and their wives.) 

Her staff of stylists, colorists and aestheticians also understand clientele attraction and retention is about more than perfect trimming technique, the magic highlighting touch or blow-your-mind blowouts. It’s of tantamount importance to make a connection and build trust with the people who patronize the shop.

Mary Ann understands that there are important women’s issues—specifically related to the oft clandestine epidemic of domestic violence and domestic abuse—that beauty salon professionals sometimes come face-to-face with.

“We certainly have the opportunity to intervene and help when needed,” she says.

Recognizing that this unique relationship could help abuse victims, in 2017, Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis launched Cut It Out: Salons Against Domestic Violence, a program connected with the Professional Beauty Association that mobilizes hairstylists, nail technicians, aestheticians, students and others in the beauty industry to confront the problem. 

NOT REQUIRED, STILL IMPORTANT

A few states, including Illinois, New York and California, have enacted laws requiring cosmetology students to take one hour every two years of training to recognize the signs of abuse and assault. Practicing professionals in those states can’t renew their licenses without the course. 

Here in Texas, however, it’s all voluntary.

  About 60 Collin County salons participated in Cut It Out orientation and training sessions in 2017. In 2019, the district attorney’s office is stepping up its efforts. Assistant District Attorney and Collin County’s Domestic Abuse Chief Cresta Garland became involved with Cut It Out last January.

“It’s an awesome, effective program,” she says. She hopes to see double enrollment this time around. Training continued through 2018, although organizers will more aggressively promote this year’s kickoff. 

“We are already seeing buzz on social media since announcing this year’s event,” Cresta says.

Cresta worked in Dallas’s domestic violence division for a few years, before she relocated to Collin County, where she has headed up the domestic violence division for two years. She took a minute while rushing from one court appearance to another to discuss Cut It Out, which she believes can have a positive impact.

She points out that the salon professional has close physical contact as well as an emotional connection with clients. That means sagacious cosmetologists might see or hear something alarming yet hidden. 

“That is important because often physical abusers choose areas of the body that are not typically visible, such as the back of the head or neck,” Cresta says. “They might notice chunks of hair missing.” Hair pulling is a common form of physical abuse, Cut It Out teaches. 

While Cresta doesn’t have specific numbers demonstrating the program’s success on hand, anecdotal evidence exists.

Read more: Fletcher vs. LISD: The young woman at the heart of a Title IX sexual assault case that rocked a local school district

RECOGNIZING THE PATTERN 

Abuse is a pattern of behavior that creates an unequal power dynamic in which one partner tries to assert control over the other in a variety of ways, explains Jessica Garcia, a trained Cut It Out volunteer who has worked in Dallas and Plano.  

As a young hairdresser in the early 1990s, at an area salon, she had a client who fretted over every new hairstyle. This client wouldn’t choose a new haircut or color, or even make an appointment, without consulting her boyfriend. Before long, he was setting the appointments himself, tagging along, paying, Jessica recalls.  

“She practically was a different person from the time she started coming to my salon,” she recalls, “to the way she seemed, like, a year later.” 

Jessica  says she even mentioned the customer’s concerning behavior to a couple more experienced stylists, but she thinks no one felt comfortable addressing it. Then the client stopped coming in altogether. Jessica still thinks about her and wonders if she is all right. 

“I don’t know if we were being necessarily negligent. Definitely not intentionally. We simply did not have the tools to deal with this—[we] worried about being too invasive, or how much involvement was acceptable … could we get in trouble? I never again want to pass up the chance to help someone because I don’t know how.” 

For the record, Jessica adds that another time a trusted customer admitted that her boyfriend threatened to run her down in his car. The client laughed about it in a way that Jessica found disconcerting. 

“This all happened right after a domestic incident led to a shooting in Plano,” she explains, “so—maybe I was jumpy—but I insisted she should call the police, and I believe she was able to obtain a protective order …  because it turned out that the guy was not joking. He really meant her harm.”

Females face increasing domestic violence and abuse, but domestic abuse doesn’t impact women alone. The CDC reports that one in four men in the United States will become a victim of domestic violence during his lifetime. That’s upwards of three million male domestic violence victims every year. They, too, might confide in a hairdresser, barber or spa technician. 

Sometimes abuse doesn’t leave physical scars, scratches or bruises; emotional abuse can look different.

Detecting emotional abuse requires noticing certain dynamics and the things the client shares, Jessica says. “Do they talk about isolation? Separation from friends or family members? Needing to sneak money? Any other red flags?” 

ENDING THE SILENCE 

Ladonna Walker attended Cut It Out training last year in another city before moving to Plano. Now she is sharing information with colleagues and on social media, in hopes of greater participation this year.

“I am not just speaking as a concerned stylist but also as a victim myself,” Ladonna says. “And the scariest thing to me is I had no clue that I was a victim because no one ever taught me what domestic violence is.” 

There is no one typical or textbook case. Possessive, controlling behavior can come across as generous and protective at first. Signs of potential violence can emerge gradually or, on the other hand, blindside an off-guard partner. 

“It’s not getting beat up every day. It may not be getting physically assaulted at all. That is why I am a part of this—learn what domestic violence really is, and then we can begin to fight it. We are the change agents that our community needs. One out of three women, and a number of men too, are abused sometime in their life. So if I see ten clients a day, it adds up, but I feel like I could easily miss something. I must have—hundreds of times, so I think more training would be excellent.”

Abuse thrives in silence, Ladonna adds. 

“As salon professionals, we have the power to make a change, save lives, make our communities better. Chances are, [at some point] a victim will sit in my chair. What am I going to do? No more silence, no more violence.”  

Read more: 20 years later: The murder investigation that changed the Plano Police Department

THE TIME TO ACT

Determining the correct action for a salon staffer who suspects abuse can be tricky, even dangerous, so another aspect of training teaches participants how to keep clients and salon personnel safe. 

Nurses and medical technicians are on the front lines when it comes to spotting physical abuse, but hair, skin, nail specialists come close.

It’s known as an unconventional point of entry. Training doesn’t ask cosmetologists to act as counselors. The goal is to safely refer the client to resources in their community. To this end, Cut It Out provides foldable “safety cards” the size of a business card containing information about safe houses or hotlines, for example, or about procuring restraining orders or access to legal professionals.

Some stylists have expressed concern about how much intervention is appropriate. 

A 2016 New York Times article about the implementation of a law that requires cosmetology students to undergo domestic violence training notes that there was some resistance early on related to whether the amendment would be “overreaching by the government, and [that] cosmetologists were concerned about liability.”

Concerns also included the possibility that clients who were experiencing problems, but weren’t ready to escape might stop patronizing the salons that try to help them. Another very real threat is that an abuser could show up at the salon. “[Organizers are] concerned not only for the safety of domestic violence and sexual assault victims, but also for everyone involved to be safe,” says assistant DA Cresta Garland.

The safety cards (a.k.a. “shoe cards,” because a recipient can easily hide one inside the sole of their shoe) provide a discreet way for salon personnel—or anyone, for that matter—to offer help. 

“This little shoe card can help a victim to begin to formulate an exit plan—who do you call? Who can pick you up? That kind of thing,” Cresta says. 

Genesis Women’s Shelter, which has sponsored local Cut It Out initiatives, has published ideas for short and long term safety plans.

“If you are in a violent situation where your physical safety is at risk, we strongly encourage you to call 911. Calling the police can be scary, embarrassing, intimidating and/or feel unnecessary for some, but you have a right to safety and this option is available to you.” 

The website includes tips like: If there is an argument, try to be in a place that has an exit and stay out of rooms such as kitchens, bathrooms or other rooms that may have items that could be used as weapons, and have a packed bag ready at a friend’s or relative’s house.

Why don’t you just leave? This is one of the most frustrating questions posed to survivors, Jessica says. 

Fear is a big factor, and it’s justified. Women leaving a violent relationship are 75 percent more likely to die at the hands of their abuser than those who stay, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. 

“Take your time to consider when you might leave the relationship, where you would go, who you would stay with,” the experts at Genesis advise. “How long you could stay there, where would you go afterwards, how much money you would need, and how you would keep your leaving a secret from your partner … we encourage you to reach out to an agency like Genesis to help guide you in this process.”

The nonprofit organization further suggests planning ahead by, for example, opening a checking or savings account and P.O. Box in your own name and leaving money, a set of keys, copies of important documents, extra clothes and medicines in a safe place or with someone you trust.

Collin County has no shortage of resources—there are abuse hotlines, a Crime Victims’ Compensation Program, legal aid lines and nonprofits such as Genesis, Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation, Hope’s Door New Beginnings Center, Samaritan Inn and Stronger Than Espresso, to name a few.

Even so, victims often do not know where to turn for help, Cresta explains. Sometimes a little information, a subtle sign that there’s aid if they want it, can be life-changing. 

Read more: Quynh Chau Stone talks journey to America, losing everything and building The Source of Hope

ONE IN THREE 

It’s true that one in three women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime, according to federal statistics.

It can affect individuals in Collin County as easily as anywhere else, Cresta says. “Every ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status and neighborhood is equally at risk.” 

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline,on average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States—that’s more than 12 million women and men over the course of a year.

Talking to a medical professional, therapist or counselor is recommended if you are in danger. But sharing the truth may feel safer in the spa or salon.

As Ladonna put it, “I believe the reason I’m told secrets is that I rarely know the person the secret needs to be kept from. Often an outpouring from a client is because they’ve got no one else to tell, and in my chair, they feel safe.”

Christina Hughes Babb

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