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A heads-up for trouble

Cut It Out program trains hairstylists to recognize signs of abuse and safely refer clients to local resources

By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / December 13, 2009

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CAMBRIDGE - Over the whir of hair dryers and the steam of hot curlers, life stories are told - of new boyfriends and weddings and children growing up.

But these salon chair exchanges between hairstylists and their clients can sometimes take a dark turn.

A client is blitzed by text messages from a possessive boyfriend. A woman panics when she gets a bill that is higher than she expected. Another gets edgy and nervous about her time in the chair, worried about not making it home in time to fix her husband supper.

Now Cambridge public health officials are hoping to capitalize on this uniquely intimate relationship by training hairstylists to look for physical and behavioral signs of abuse and steer vulnerable clients to the help they need.

“Most people feel comfortable talking to their hairdressers,’’ said Erinn Pearson, a Cambridgeport salon owner who is now part of a small army of local stylists trained to spot victims. “I don’t know if we have magic fingers or what. But we have a place where people go to talk. They talk about themselves and I talk about me. If someone is going through something, I can suggest where they can get help.’’

Cambridge officials say hairstylists are in a unique position to detect abuse because their salons offer a haven in the community for possible victims.

“There is a kind of intimacy that happens here with this person touching you and washing your hair,’’ said Kimberly Sansoucy, who heads the city’s Women’s Commission. The commission has joined with the Cambridge Public Health Department and two other groups to offer the salon program, called Cut It Out Cambridge.

The Cut It Out program originated in Alabama in 2002 in conjunction with the National Cosmetology Association, with the goal of training salon professionals to recognize warning signs and safely refer clients to local resources.

The association has since merged with the Professional Beauty Association and has linked with anti-abuse agencies to offer training at more than 1,500 salons across the country.

Cambridge became the first Massachusetts community to offer the program earlier this year. Public health officials gave the program a test run in the spring, training stylists at four salons to spot such things as cigarette burns along the hairline, bald spots where hair may have been yanked out, and bruises on the scalp. A video, now posted on YouTube, was made of the training.

In the training, stylists are also told to refrain from judgments and assumptions. Instead, they are advised to use their soothing style and personal touch to voice concern about abuse and suggest assistance to clients.

It can be difficult to raise the subject with women, who are often very reluctant and frightened to discuss their abuse, according to Alexandria Detjens, a violence prevention coordinator for the city’s public health department. One possible approach, she said, would be to say: “Remember when you told me about your husband hurting you, I’m concerned about that.’’ Or, “When I was washing your hair, I felt a pretty deep cut. How did that happen?’’ Or, “You said your boyfriend slapped you. Does that happen a lot?’’

During training, the stylists are also given pamphlets to distribute to possible victims, which includes on it the number for a national domestic violence hotline.

In recent months, officials have stepped up their campaign to urge more of the city’s roughly 70 salons to join the effort. So far, a total of nine have signed up and four more are expected to be trained next month.

“We train and practice with the stylists on how to respond to what they see or hear,’’ said Detjens, whose department is working on the project with the Women’s Commission, the Transition House, which is a shelter, and The Guidance Center, which is a family service group. “Their response to the customer is based on their personal style, their comfort level with their customers, and their level of ease with what they are hearing and seeing.’’

Alfred Mazzarelli, who has had a salon in Harvard Square for more than three decades, said he learned about the effort from his clients and he is happy to join the fight. Having seen and heard it all from clients, he suspects many victims feel trapped and many are unsure where to turn for help.

He is now part of the solution.

“There was a woman who was venting to me about her relationship with her partner, and I gave her the phone number,’’ said Mazzarelli. “I told her to watch the video for Cut it Out Cambridge. I hope she did.’’

Health officials and local advocates stress that they aren’t training the stylists to be councilors. But they see the salons as key in their community approach to tackle abuse.

Domestic violence has reached epidemic levels in Massachusetts, according to Jane Doe, Inc., a coalition of anti-abuse organizations. Since 2003, the group’s website said, more than 3,900 women and children across the state have sought safety from abusers at shelters or safe homes; 190 people have been killed in domestic violence cases in the past six years.

“Domestic violence is not a personal problem,’’ Sansoucy said. “It’s a public health crisis. If we don’t change the dialogue or the social discourse around what domestic violence is then we are not going to gain the ground we need as a society.’’

Pearson, who said she has been a victim herself, shares her story with clients, including those who aren’t ready to get help.

“What I realize through the program is that you can’t save anyone,’’ said Pearson. “All you can do is give them the information.’’

Len DePaolis, another Harvard Square stylist who participated in the training, said stylists walk a tricky line when they try to get too deep in their clients’ lives.

“Women tell you everything in this business in a round-about way,’’ DePaolis said. “They won’t just come out and tell you that their husbands are beating them . . . But they tell you when they are not happy.’’

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com