May-June 2012

Partnering with salons against family violence

Dee Hobbs

Assistant County ­Attorney in Williamson County

Introducing SAFE With Style, a partnership between Williamson County prosecutors and local hair salons to combat domestic violence

Several years ago the owner of a local salon requested we come and speak to employees about domestic violence. One of our investigators frequented this salon and had built a friendship with the owner, and some of the stylists had voiced concerns about a few of their clients. Once the stylists discussed their observations with our investigator, she quickly identified signs of domestic violence.
    The owner paid the stylists to attend the training to guarantee a good turnout. Afterward, we learned that one of the stylists had been in a domestic violence situation herself and the group identified about half a dozen clients over the past year who were, as they put it, “textbook” cases of domestic violence.
    Hairstylists, as many of us can imagine, are in a position of confidence. (Think about it: What do you share with your stylist?) A hairstylist, for many people, is their only regular contact outside of work or home. The stylist notices changes in behavior or style, bruises (especially on the head and neck), and most are good listeners. A stylist will usually have a minimum of 30 minutes to an hour of uninterrupted time to spend with her clients. A bond is formed. It is this bond that can often be the saving grace that gives domestic violence (DV) victims the courage to seek help.
    Several of our criminal cases began because a stylist encouraged her client to report to police what happened the night, weekend, week, or month before. As prosecutors we used the stylist’s observations to help in the trial. Jurors might be suspicious of assault claims that are made awhile after the fact, but the one consistent exception appears to be when the stylist—an uninterested party in the jury’s mind—witnessed the signs of domestic violence and prompted the victim to come forward. For the jury, this third party’s observations remove any suspicion that the victim is vindictive or has ulterior motives for going to court.
    In one case, a victim went to the salon after a vicious assault. While discussing hairstyles, her life, and her secrets, she complained about her side hurting. The stylist worked the entire session trying to convince the client to seek medical attention. The client finally complied and went to the doctor, who diagnosed several rib fractures and reported the incident to law enforcement as a possible domestic violence assault. Our office was able to successfully prosecute that case and fortunately had the medical records to prove that the husband had injured this woman. We would never have known about the violence in that household if the stylist had not recognized the signs of domestic abuse and worked so hard to convince the victim to ask for help.

The seed of an idea
As prosecutors we are always exploring creative ways to combat the problems that plague our communities. Domestic violence is often the “dirty little secret” that victims are afraid to share. We can seek protective orders, pursue criminal charges, and provide services only to those victims we know about. We must also educate the community about the existence and dangers of domestic violence to remove as many barriers as we can to encourage victims to seek the help they have so long been denied and so adamantly deserve.
    Statistics show that there are two places domestic violence abusers will “allow” their victims to go unaccompanied and on a regular basis: to their ob-gyn doctor and their hairstylist. And, given our past experiences with stylists and their assistance in domestic violence cases, I had an idea, which I share to encourage other prosecutors to consider implementing too: the SAFE (Salons Against Family Endangerment) With Style program. SAFE is a partnership between our office and various local salons. It is not yet up and running, but we are putting the pieces together. I share the idea in this article to encourage other prosecutors’ offices to consider implementing such a program.
    Our role as prosecutors is to educate stylists on the signs of domestic violence with a focus on its statistics, warning signs, cycles, and emotional impact in a short course. The prosecutor’s office then certifies the stylist as a SAFE stylist; entire salons can be certified through SAFE if a certain percentage of the stylists were certified in domestic violence identification and prevention. A prosecutor can also be the liaison between the salons, victim advocates within the county, and the local shelters. In speaking with several salon owners and stylists in our area I found that this industry has attempted in the past to get involved, but miscommunication between the salons and shelters, prosecutor’s offices, and law enforcement kept them from putting their desires to help into practice. We, as prosecutors, can break down those barriers.
    The salons’ role is to provide an outlet for materials and information about domestic violence to let victims know that help is available and that they are not alone. These materials can be placed in the salon’s bathrooms or in an area away from general public view. If feasible, the salons can donate services and products to shelters or victims directly with vouchers to help victims regain self-esteem that has long been denied and in some cases help them prepare to re-enter the workforce.
    Salons in our area have offered to donate the proceeds from a day’s profits to help shelters, and as new store locations open, to promote the SAFE program at the grand opening event. Resources are always limited, so any influx of unexpected donations will greatly assist in providing for victims of domestic violence. Salons can also have volunteer drives to give their patrons the opportunity to assist local shelters, re-sale stores that benefit shelters, and victim assistance coordinators (VACs) within the county. Often, it takes making people aware of the need to get them involved.

Recent publicity
In a recent interview with a local newspaper on protective orders and the devastation of domestic violence, the reporter asked what people can do to curb this disturbing trend. I explained that it is going to take a community wide approach and some “out of the box” thinking. I gave the example of the SAFE With Style program that I wanted to create in our county. This was only meant as an example, a side note to the topic at hand, but the reporter ran with the idea as a major part of the story. I believe it started, “Can a haircut and a perm stop family violence? Criminal Courts’ Chief Dee Hobbs thinks so.” Believe me when I tell you that my co-workers had a lot of fun with that article.
    The upside to the publicity is that it started a whirlwind of interest and discussion. Local television outlets ran stories about the proposed program on the news. The domino effect has been amazing. I have received numerous inquiries from salons in and around our county. It turns out that several police officers’ wives own salons in the area, and they are on board. Even some corporate-owned salons have expressed interest. The television story featured a few stylists who expressed how excited they are to participate. One owner called me the next day to say that their customers were trying to drop off checks to help offset the cost of starting the program. I even received an e-mail from a gentleman who started off by saying that he was not a salon owner and he was not in the industry, but that his wife and stepchildren had been in a horrible domestic violence situation before they came into his life. He volunteered to help however he could. He said it pains him to this day that he cannot take away the horrible things his family had to go through but that he wanted to work hard to make sure others can break the cycle.
    It is going to be a long road but the chance to make a difference is worth the effort. I envision a time when the SAFE With Style Board of Directors (a future 501(c)(3) charitable non-profit organization) can brag about the number of service hours they have provided statewide, the amount of money raised to combat domestic violence, the number of lives they have saved, the number of lives they have changed for the better, and that they recognize those in their own industry that have gone above and beyond in the name of ending domestic violence.
    The battle against domestic violence rages on. We are low on resources but strong in heart and determination. We can make a difference; we just need to recruit more soldiers. Where do we start? With a haircut and a perm? Maybe. But more important than where we start is where we finish. We must end with a resounding and unified voice clearly telling offenders, “No more! Not in our community!” to show victims that help is here, the time is now, and that their voices will be heard! The concept is unorthodox, the heroes are unlikely, but the possibilities are limitless. It may only be hair today, but if we get involved, if we reach out to the community, if we work together, our victims can be safe tomorrow.