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Md.'s New Front in Anti-Abuse Fight: Salons

By Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2005; Page B01

They know if hair extensions are the secret to your luxurious mane. They know -- not that they would ever tell -- that blond is not your natural color.

But when it comes to their loyal clients, hairstylists and their fellow cosmetologists often know secrets far deeper than those. That is why the state of Maryland is enlisting them in a new role: first responders in the struggle against domestic abuse.

Jen McGraw styles the hair of Margaret O'Brien, a victim of spousal abuse, at a salon in Anne Arundel County. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D) appeared yesterday at a salon in Anne Arundel County to promote a voluntary plan to train hundreds of salon professionals to recognize the signs of domestic abuse and to gently refer clients to counseling and other services.

"Our information is that women will, in fact, when they get their hair done, talk about good things in their life as well as bad things," Curran said, seated at the Robert Andrew salon near Crofton. Curran said he had consulted with his barber, who helped confirm that the notion of stylists knowing all is more than a stereotype.

The plan, based on a model in use in a dozen other states, is to point victims in the right direction by tapping into the relationships that women have with their stylists. "Hey, women come to salons, so it's a natural," Curran said. "It's a natural to connect the dots."

According to a fact sheet distributed by Curran's office, about 20,000 instances of domestic violence are reported to police in Maryland each year, a number that advocates suspect vastly understates the scope of the problem. The state has about 40,000 licensed cosmetologists, barbers and other salon professionals (a category that includes what Curran referred to as "nail people"), and about 4,400 salons.

In addition to the secrets that are spilled at salons, stylists by virtue of their work are often in a position to detect physical signs of abuse: bruising of the scalp, bald spots where hair may have been pulled out.

"Certainly stylists see the signs long before a woman walks into a domestic violence agency," said Jennifer Jaquess, who works for the national program Cut It Out, which coordinates the stylist-training efforts.

"A stylist is not a member of your family or your friend circle, so they have a certain anonymity," she said. "But at the same time, they're somebody you see regularly and you trust."

After the event yesterday, Jaquess trained two volunteers from the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence. They, in turn, hope to train hundreds of salon professionals in Maryland over the next 18 months. "We're not training counselors," Jaquess said. "What we teach the stylists to do is, in a caring and compassionate way, say, 'I'm worried about you.' "

On hand at the salon was Jeanne Carder, who applauded the program and said it might have helped her escape the abuse of her late husband sooner. Carder said she confided in a massage therapist a year before the police became involved.

"You shoot the breeze about everything and talk about all kinds of personal stuff," she said. "But she didn't have any information to give me, just a shoulder to lean on."

The salon's owner, Bob Zupka, said that for stylists who suspect a client has been battered, "there's a frustration in not knowing what to say. You don't want to say the wrong thing." He said more than 30 of his employees have expressed interested in the training.

One of his longtime stylists, Karen McKeen, said she hears it all. One client broke down last year and described an abusive relationship that had come to an end. Another client dropped by to show her breast implants.

"Oh, my God," she said. "They tell you everything."

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