Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Enlisting the Aid of Hairstylists as Sentinels for Domestic Abuse

A friend sent me this NY Times article about women leveraging social connections to generate an intervention against domestic violence. Not all women work in professional businesses with lots of financial and legal resources, so they don't have those social connections to take advantage of. However, they probably go to hair salons. This article features an program at a Latina-owned hair salon. An excerpt:

Martha Castillo knew her client had a problem because their weekly hair-straightening sessions were always interrupted by phone calls from a boyfriend angrily accusing her of being with another man. Magda Florentino noticed cigarette burns on a woman’s temples when she pulled back her hair for washing — and did not buy the explanation that they had happened accidentally while she was bartending.

And Candida Vasquez received a hysterical call from a customer soon after she had spent three hours knitting extensions into the woman’s hair. Her boyfriend hated the look, and in a fit of rage he had cut off not only the extensions, but also the rest of her hair.

Ms. Vasquez said she was not surprised by the call. Troubled clients tell her their personal stories all the time. “They are so tormented, they just come in and share,” she said.

The privileged, often therapeutic relationship between hairdressers and clients has long been the subject of magazine articles and movies. A growing movement in New York and across the nation tries to harness that bond to identify and prevent domestic violence, a pervasive problem that victims are often too ashamed to reveal to law enforcement or other public officials.

Ms. Vasquez, Ms. Castillo and Ms. Florentino are all stylists in Manhattan who have been trained (or are being trained) as part of a one-year-old program by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services in beauty salons in the Washington Heights area, where many cases of domestic abuse and neglect include violence that is not necessarily aimed at children.

The initiative joins similar efforts that have been sprouting across the nation; perhaps the best known, called Cut It Out and based in Chicago, has trained 40,000 salon workers in all 50 states to recognize signs of domestic abuse. In the past few months, the Cut It Out program was also adopted by the Empire Education Group, which has 87 cosmetology schools, and endorsed by the American Association of Cosmetology Schools, the trade organization representing another 800 schools.

Nearly 600,000 women and girls and 144,000 men and boys nationwide were victims of violence by an intimate partner in 2006, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. In New York last year, the police received hundreds of domestic disturbance calls every day and recorded about 55,000 crimes connected to domestic violence.

Neither the city’s program nor the much larger Cut It Out, founded in 2002, tracks how many women the programs have referred for help, so it is hard to assess their effectiveness. But law enforcement officials in New York and nationally have praised the beauty-shop approach for reaching a population that normally hides from authorities.

Kathy Ryan, chief of the Domestic Violence Unit of the New York Police Department, said that battered women were such a hard population to reach that “preventing even one death should be considered success.”

The police have tried doing outreach to victims by, among other things, setting up domestic violence-education tables at community events, only to find that no one wants to be seen near them. But the atmosphere is different in the safety of a beauty salon.

“The salon may be one of the few places women might be without their abuser around,” said Laurie Magid, a former state prosecutor who is acting United States attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. “This program really addresses a need. You don’t have a case unless you have a crime reported in the first place and that is the difficult area of domestic violence.”

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