May-June 2015

“Cutting Out” domestic violence, one hairstylist at a time

Jessica Escue

Assistant District ­Attorney in Brazos County

How Brazos County prosecutors taught local hairstylists how to recognize the signs and symptoms of domestic violence in their clients

There is something safe and comforting about a hair stylist’s chair. It is a unique spot where confessions, personal experiences, and life stories are not only shared but also encouraged. It is a place where women go to take care of themselves and, absent the men and children in their lives, they open up. Why? Because a hair stylist is someone they trust, not just with their appearance but with their secrets. That makes salons and stylists the perfect targets for a domestic violent outreach program.
    Breaking down the barriers and misconceptions about domestic violence has been one issue that we, like so many prosecutor’s offices, struggle with. In Brazos County in 2014, domestic violence accounted for approximately 55 percent of our violent felonies. We began to ask ourselves, how do we start tackling this problem head on?
    Last fall, Brazos County’s elected district attorney, Jarvis Parsons (my boss), asked me to come to his office. “I have an idea,” he said. He then told me that he had been thinking about ways to bring information about domestic violence and the resources available to the general public. Several years ago, Jarvis had heard from another prosecutor (Dee Hobbs, then the first assistant county attorney in Williamson County) about a domestic violence program that targeted hairstylists, and Jarvis recognized what a great opportunity it was. He knew that if we could train stylists to recognize the signs of domestic violence and how to approach the subject, we could take advantage of the unique relationship between a stylist and her client to get information and resources to victims who desperately needed it.
    I quickly realized what a valuable resource a stylist could be in the battle against domestic violence. A beauty salon is one of the few places that a victim of domestic violence will likely be away from her abuser and one-on-one with another person. In consulting with the client about her hair and beauty needs, a stylist can often see signs of abuse that others could miss, including bruising, hair missing or falling out, or unusual behavior. Stylists and clients also have a trusting relationship that allows the client to feel comfortable sharing personal information. A salon was also an ideal location for talking with a domestic violence victim, as most abusers would likely not be in hearing distance during the conversation. After noting all these benefits, I immediately told Jarvis that I wanted to help, and we began work to find a way to train stylists on domestic violence.

Cut It Out
Jarvis researched whether there were any domestic violence programs taking advantage of the special stylist-client relationship, and he discovered the Cut It Out program run by the Professional Beauty Association. Cut It Out began in Birmingham in 2002 and relies on the warm relationship that women have with their stylists and beauticians to encourage victims to seek help. Since its founding, the program has spread to train stylists all over the country to recognize the signs of domestic violence. Its materials include a PowerPoint presentation on myths about domestic violence, facts about victims of domestic violence, and helpful aids in broaching the subject with a client, as well as videos and testimonials. The materials can be altered to fit a time slot from 30 to 60 minutes; we also tweaked the presentation to include contact information for the National Domestic Violence Hotline as well as our local domestic violence shelter, Phoebe’s Home, which provides residential and non-residential services to victims of domestic violence.
    We had the information for the stylists ready to go at that point, but the next issue was how to get that information to victims (clients) in a way that does not place them at risk. We knew that many times a victim will not immediately take advantage of resources but may need them at a later date. We started by making flyers with tear-off tabs containing the phone number of Phoebe’s Home for the salons to hang in the women’s bathrooms. For those victims who can’t carry around a shelter’s number without fear of the abuser finding it and making things worse, we created a QR code (the little square barcodes you see on signs and other promotional items) which could be printed on the back of a salon’s appointment card. This QR code was programmed to send the person to the Phoebe’s Home website and could be given out to a victim without anyone else realizing the significance of the information.

Training salon ­professionals
We were now ready to get started. Our team—Jarvis; myself; our office manager, Gracie Aguilar; and one of our victim assistance coordinators, Melissa Carter—began contacting salons, spas, and cosmetology schools to ask whether they would be interested in having us come to present a short program on domestic violence. The interest we got was extremely encouraging. All over Brazos County, stylists and salons responded that they would love to see our presentation.
    We started out going to bigger salons, presenting information on domestic violence to stylists, salon owners, and other professionals to get our message out. Our sole goal from the beginning was to help victims get out of these abusive situations. We made clear to the stylists that even if the client never called the police, their concern and encouragement could help the client get out of a dangerous situation which could possibly—and all too often does—cost her life.
    We met with entire salons during their monthly staff meetings. We were flexible with the salons and their time: Sometimes these meetings were really late at night and sometimes really early in the morning, and whether it was 30 minutes or an hour, we took what we could get. In our meetings with stylists, we talked with them about common myths about domestic violence and explained some of the burning questions that people have about individuals in domestic violence relationships, such as “Why does she not leave?” We explained that domestic violence is a common but often an unreported problem that affects women of all races, educations, socio-economic levels, and personality types. We also presented information on how best to approach a client who they suspected was being abused, as well as local resources that the client could tap to leave a violent relationship. We also told them what not to do when speaking with a domestic violence victim, including the importance of confidentiality and discretion. Above all, we told the stylists not to feel pressure to “fix” the situation. We explained that sometimes victims may be defensive or may not be ready to leave an abuser. The most important thing that they could do for their clients was to be supportive, follow their instincts, and let the client know that they would be there for them.
    We also got the opportunity to teach at a local cosmetology school. In that setting, we spoke to about 50 students about the problems of domestic violence and what they might see after they became licensed. It is our hope that our office can start providing this talk for each class of the hairstyling students to better prepare them to recognize the signs and symptoms of someone caught in an abusive relationship.
    Although I was prepared to teach stylists on how to speak with victims of domestic violence, I was completely unprepared for the number of actual victims of domestic violence that we would encounter among the stylists we trained. During our first training, I began noticing that some of the women were tearing up or completely shutting down. I had seen this behavior before during voir dire for domestic violence cases but was unprepared for how often I would see it during our Cut It Out campaign. Often these women would approach us at the end of the talk to tell us about their situation or that of a loved one. Some of these women, who were completely isolated and felt totally alone, finally had the courage to speak up and talk about their situations. At the end of the talk, we gave out our business cards and told them to feel free to call us with any questions or concerns.

The response
Although the program is only in its infancy, since our presentations, numerous stylists have called to tell us about the impact that the program made, and the feedback so far has been fantastic. Stylists contacted us to tell us that behavior they’d dismissed, such as a client having to constantly text to tell her boyfriend where she was or a client’s boyfriend being the one to inform the stylist on how she could change the client’s hair, was now seen in a new light. Because of our class, these stylists now felt comfortable talking with their clients about domestic violence and resources available to them.
    So far, we have trained more than 150 stylists in Brazos County alone. Based on the fantastic response, we began contacting the prosecutor’s offices in neighboring counties to see if we could bring the program to the eight counties covered by our domestic violence shelter. So far, we have done a program for Madison and Leon Counties and are looking at giving programs at salons in Washington and Burleson Counties.
    Cut It Out has also been very effective in raising the public’s awareness of the problem of domestic violence and has helped break down the stigmas and myths associated with it. This has not only helped the victims of domestic violence but it has also helped stylists (potential jurors) understand these women a little bit better. We see it as being an integral part of our fight against domestic violence and something we will continue to do.
    However, the most important thing the Cut It Out program has done is equip the people who are best positioned to help victims of domestic violence get the resources they desperately need. These victims, who may never call the police, will now have another lifeline to help them leave a dangerous and destructive situation.
    For more information, please see the national Cut It Out website at