An Illinois law that takes effect Sunday aims to take advantage of the trusted relationship between hairstylists and their clients to prevent domestic violence.
Stylists, barbers, cosmetologists, estheticians, hair braiders and nail technicians in Illinois will receive an hour of mandated abuse-prevention training as part of the licensing process. The law does not require them to report any violence, and it shelters them from any liability.
Instead, the training provides beauty professionals with information about local help and resources they can share with clients. The Illinois measure appears to be the first of its kind in the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Hairstylists are well situated to notice signs of abuse, said Vi Nelson, spokeswoman for the industry group Cosmetologists Chicago.
Abusers "tend to try to find places where it could be an accident or it's not as visible," Nelson said. "They may hit them in the back of the head, and there's a bruise or a bump. The hairdresser is touching you and can see things that cannot be visible to the casual observer."
Clients and stylists often develop yearslong relationships, said Karen Gordon, who owns J. Gordon Designs salon in Chicago.
"We get very close with our clients, even so far to say we love our clients," she said. "You know people through life's ups and downs. When people come into a safe environment like a beauty salon, they tend to open up."
State Sen. Bill Cunningham supported the measure, in part, because his wife is a former hairstylist whose customers frequently shared incidents of domestic violence.
She "had a difficult time dealing with these issues when they came up. She wasn't sure what to tell her clients," said Cunningham, a Democrat.
That's why the new law was written to connect victims with services, not to have beauty professionals act as therapists, he said.
"The main goal is to get victims of domestic violence professional help if they want it," he said. "It could be as simple as providing their client with a phone number. In maybe more extreme cases it could be putting their client in touch with a shelter."
The domestic violence prevention nonprofit Chicago Says No More said the mandate was needed because past training efforts never caught on. The group's founder, Kristie Paskvan, said beauty professionals are an ideal source to provide help because they can be more objective than family and friends.
"They're listening and then they can say 'Hey, if you're interested, here's some information,'" Paskvan said.
State Rep. Fran Hurley of Chicago, who supported the legislation, said she knows of one Chicago-area salon owner who puts business cards for a local anti-domestic violence group in her beauty shop's bathroom.
"You'd be amazed at how many times she has to replace them," said Hurley, also a Democrat. "She refills them all the time."
Cosmetologists Chicago helped write the measure so that it did not require beauty professionals to become involved or report violence unless they choose. Once that was clarified, Nelson said, the professional response was "overwhelmingly positive."
The first training sessions will be offered in March at an industry trade show in Chicago.
Gordon has been in the beauty industry for 38 years and said she thinks she would have used the training if it were offered earlier in her career.
"I wish I'd had the tools," she said. "I wish I'd had the resources."