Stylists taught to spot signs of domestic violence through Middlesex program

The 'Cut it Out' program teaches hair stylists and beauticians to learn how to handle clients who are suffering from domestic abuse. District Attorney Marian Ryan was at Naz Kupelian Salon in Lexington to talk to stylists about appropriate procedures.

The Boston Globe
By Victoria Bedford Globe Correspondent

Jacq uelin Apsler, executive director of Domestic Violence Services Network, Inc., warned participants to never confront a suspected perpetrator of domestic violence.

In his 25 years as a hairstylist, Naz Kupelian had seen the signs, while never quite knowing how to react. Clients with mysterious bruises. Clients nervous or anxious about missing appointments or paying the bill. Overbearing partners standing watch during hair appointments.

“I thought maybe he was just in love, or maybe he’s jealous,” Kupelian said of the watchful partners. “I never really thought anything of it.”

When stylists really did suspect something bad in a client’s life, he said, they faced what they thought were two possible options: doing nothing or calling the police.

“Domestic abuse has touched all of us,” said Susan Kupelian, Naz’s wife and co-owner of the Lexington hair salon bearing his name. “But it’s something that we don’t talk about. Nobody talks about it.”

A national program is trying to change all that, with the help of hair salons.

Last month, Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, police officers from Concord, Lexington, and Bedford, and advocates from the Domestic Violence Services Network came to the Kupelians’ salon to speak to stylists. Their topic:  Cut It Out, a national program aimed at helping hairstylists talk with clients dealing with that long-taboo issue:  domestic abuse.

“I’ve known my hairstylist longer than I’ve known my husband,” Ryan told the small group gathered in a circle, surrounded by mirrors and hair dryers hanging from the ceiling. “It’s a very intimate relationship; they know everything about you.”

Ryan says the program aims to tap into that knowledge, and the special nature of the client-stylist relationship, and find sensitive ways to guide clients in the right direction. “There are lots and lots of people who will not go to the police station,” she said, “but they’re probably going to a salon.”

It’s a mistake, the district attorney said, to think violence doesn’t occur in well-to-do Middlesex County homes.

“People think we don’t have any of that in places like Lexington, Bedford, and Concord, but we all know somebody or we ourselves have been in a position where there’s been some kind of domestic violence,” she said. “It lingers in the shadows.”

Cut It Out was launched in Alabama in 2002. Ryan brought the regional program to Massachusetts in 2009, and started visiting high schools, vocational schools with cosmetology programs, beauty schools, and private salons in an effort to help stylists help their clients. “The goal is to teach you how to accept what they’re saying and lead them toward resources that can help them,” she said.

Ryan told the stylists that because of how personal their jobs are, they are in a unique position to spot signs of violence other people may not notice, including bruises on the head or neck, missing or damaged hair, or bloodshot eyes from loss of sleep, anxiety, or even choking.

“In a salon, you see things that other people might not see,” she said.

The next step, Ryan said, requires knowing how to react. “The one thing that we don’t want people to do,” she said, “is go out and confront the [abuser] in the parking lot, or tell the client what to do.”

Ryan encouraged stylists to refer the client to brochures or cards in the salon containing information about local groups that can help, like the Domestic Violence Services Network, represented at the event by executive director Jacquelin Apsler. The Concord-based network is a community collaboration between area police departments and nonprofit agencies, and provides crisis-intervention services, confidential meetings with advocates, and legal counsel.

Apsler told stylists that reacting in an understanding and nonjudgmental way is critical. A big part is understanding why they can’t easily leave abusive situations.

“It’s very complicated,” she said. “There are so many layers and so many ways in which it manifests itself, it’s different for different people. . . . Typically there’s financial abuse, but it’s really the emotional abuse that absolutely destroys people.”

Sometimes, Apsler explained, the relationship can be so controlling that the salon is the only place where the victim can experience a moment of safety. “The more controlling partner allows this to happen because it works for him or her to have a more attractive partner, to have their partner looking their best,” she said.

Stylists were provided with contact information for Apsler’s organization, Ryan’s office, advocacy organizations, local safe houses, and the Safelink 24-Hour Hotline, a toll-free service for victims to confidentially reach out to multilingual advocates for domestic violence victims.

Ryan introduced officers from local police departments to the stylists, encouraging them to communicate about any issues. Those were introductions with a very specific purpose.

“If someone makes a disclosure to you,’’ the district attorney told the stylists, “don’t just tell them to go to the police, because that can be intimidating. It’s better to say hey, ‘I know this officer, they can help.’ ”

With potential lines of communication established, advocates believe it will be easier for stylists to bridge the gap between their clients and the resources they need.

“Already people are thinking about it differently,” Apsler said, looking around the salon. “Maybe they’ll be able to make that connection with a client and really help them and move them forward.

“We’re not doing the moving, we’re just giving people options and letting them know they’re not alone.”

Victoria Bedford can be reached at vebedford@


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