Washington Post

For Some Abuse Victims, A Wash, Set -- and Counsel

Hair Stylists Enlisted in Domestic Violence Fight

By Rene Sanchez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 18, 2001; Page A3

SAN FRANCISCO -- The women who are regulars at Viola Jolie Witcher's salon keep few secrets from her as she styles their hair.

They reveal things they hide even from family and friends. And one subject comes up more than most: their trouble with men. Witcher says she often hears whispered, painful stories of persistent abuse by husbands or boyfriends.

Sometimes she notices suspicious bruises. But she has never quite known how to help.

"We're not psychiatrists," she said. "We haven't been able to tell them a whole lot."

Until now. In a novel step, San Francisco is enlisting unusual new recruits in its campaign to help women suffering from domestic violence: hairdressers.

City prosecutors and social workers here have begun training them to look for signs of abuse, to offer careful counseling and to coax victims to report crimes to police or to seek refuge in shelters.

It is not the first time that beauty salons have been summoned to the front lines of a social problem. For years, medical leaders in some cities have teamed up with hairdressers in campaigns to educate women on the value of being vigilant about diseases such as breast cancer. But asking them to intervene in domestic violence is more intrusive and riskier. The issue is fraught with complexities.

City officials and advocates for women say the idea makes sense because no other community fixtures -- not churches, schools or health clinics -- have the potential to reach so many women in comfortable, discreet settings as hair stylists.

"It seems like a good match," said Lisa Polacci, a manager at La Casa de las Madres, a local shelter. "For many women, [hairdressers] are like part of their family, but they're also enough on the outside to be confided in. So much of domestic violence occurs in isolation. Some women feel a lot of shame about what's happening to them, and they also can face a real lack of sympathy if they just don't leave a bad situation right away."

Every month in San Francisco, police refer an average of 120 new cases involving domestic violence to prosecutors. But investigating the crime and winning convictions are difficult.

Some women are reluctant to testify in court. Even though they are weary of abuse and are angry, many do not want husbands or boyfriends sent to prison. Others refuse even to alert police because they fear that such a call would enrage their husband or boyfriend and lead to more violence.

"It's the most underreported crime," said Ann Lansing, a director of the victim services unit for the San Francisco District Attorney's Office. "Prosecution is not always the answer in these situations, but we need to do much more to get the violence to stop. That is all many women want."

In a recent letter to hundreds of hairdressers around the city, District Attorney Terence Hallinan said they were "uniquely situated" to assist abused women and urged them to attend seminars on the warning signs of domestic violence and ways they could respond. The city does not want stylists to become police informants or witnesses at trials. Rather, it is asking them to intervene in subtle ways, by motivating women to take action, referring them to shelters or giving them self-help pamphlets.

So far, a few dozen hairdressers, several male, have come to the first two training sessions. Some stylists said they were surprised by the city's invitation and reluctant at first to accept it.

"I was apprehensive," said Helene Rene, who has had a salon in San Francisco for 16 years. "I can't tell you how many divorces and other problems I've been through with my clients. But what I was taught was how to do hair and makeup and just to listen to people, not to intrude into their lives even if they tell me everything, which they do."

The National Cosmetology Association, which represents 30,000 salons, said it supports San Francisco's initiative and is discussing whether to promote it nationwide. But Vi Nelson, a spokeswoman for the trade group, said that it still has reservations about asking hairdressers to assume such a serious new role.

"So many people treat them like psychiatrists and social workers," she said, "but they aren't trained that way."

At the first seminar here last month, Rene learned how to look for clues of abuse -- not just bruises on women, but sudden weight loss, anxiety and despondency. She also watched short films on how domestic violence usually escalates from verbal to physical abuse and why many women are afraid to seek help. A physician came to explain the injuries that women often sustain.

Rene said she left inspired to confront the issue in her salon. But she is proceeding with caution.

She has tacked telephone numbers of local women's shelters and tip sheets about dealing with abuse to a bulletin board in the bathroom. That way "no one will know that they're reading it," she said. And, for the first time, she is gently bringing up the subject with some clients as she styles their hair.

"All I say is that I went to a very interesting conference recently about domestic violence and I talk about some of the facts and myths I learned," Rene said. "Then I drop it. But the interesting thing is now that I'm talking about it, I'm hearing even more stories of the problems women have and don't know how to solve."

In nearly 40 years of styling hair, Viola Jolie Witcher -- clients call her Miss Jolie -- says she has heard it all. Abused women have come running into her salon asking whether they should call police or hire an attorney. A few have even killed or wounded their husbands after getting battered, she said.

Witcher, 69, said she has always shown them sympathy, but also has tried not to get too involved.

"If you try to do too much, like telling them to call police before they have somewhere else to go, you could just get them hurt some more," she said. "Or the man could get mad and come looking for you saying, 'What are you telling my wife?' Then you have trouble. It's a fine line."

But Witcher decided to go to one of the recent training sessions. She, too, left determined to help. Now, she stacks brochures about the issue in her salon and is passing out names of places in the city that offer support to abused women. And she is talking to clients about the problem with new resolve.

"We see some of these people more than they see their families," Witcher said. "They tell me so many dreadful things. Some of them have just been stripped of their personality. They've been hit so much and told they're nothing or nobody for so long, they just think they're worthless. And they don't know where to get any help. I don't think this is going to solve the problem, but at least now we know how to show them a way out."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company