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Illinois requires cosmetologists to undergo training to learn the signs of domestic violence in order to renew their professional licenses.
When women come to a salon, Ryan Murphy likes to joke, it’s 20 percent for the beauty treatment and 80 percent for the talk therapy a hairstylist can provide.
“We’re in a hands-on environment. We are physically touching these people in their personal space,” said Murphy, co-owner of Murphy’s Salon and Day Spa in Peoria, Illinois. “That has these people feel more comfortable to talk to us about personal things. We talk about literally everything when the person is in that chair.”
Two years ago, Illinois lawmakers seized on the intimacy of that relationship, passing a law that requires cosmetologists to take domestic violence and sexual assault education classes as part of their license renewal process.
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Fran Hurley, does not require that service providers report abuse to authorities and frees them from liability if they choose not to. The goal, Hurley said then, was not to turn beauty professionals into authorities on abuse, but to teach them to better spot the signs that it may be happening.
“There’s an openness, a freeness, a relationship that lasts years or decades between the client and the cosmetologist,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “They’re in a position to see something that may or may not be right.”
In Illinois, cosmetologists—which can include hairstylists, nail technicians, makeup artists and more—must take 14 hours of continuing education classes to renew their license every two years. During a person’s first license renewal, one hour of that training must go toward domestic violence and sexual assault awareness; after that, cosmetologists can retake the class but are not mandated to do so. Classes can come from any continuing education provider approved by the state Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. The training focuses mostly on symptoms of abuse that a cosmetologist might be in a unique position to notice, Murphy said.
“Like when you’re putting the cape around the client’s neck, is there a bruise there? When you’re looking at their scalp, do you see spots or bumps or bruises?” he said. “It’s also just being able to give you the confidence to ask questions if you see something like that, like, ‘Is there something I can do to help you?’ You walk out of there with a better knowledge of what to look for.”
Because the concept is relatively new, training options were limited at first. Murphy took his class at a local nonprofit, but the sessions have become more varied since then and include online offerings for cosmetologists who prefer to do the training remotely.
Illinois was the first state to enact a policy requiring that training as part of the license renewal process. Legislatures in at least 14 states have since introduced similar measures, though only one—in Arkansas—has become law.
Proponents of the idea say that the training is a natural extension of the client/salon professional experience and an easy way to provide a safe space for abuse victims to easily share their stories.
"Research shows that most battered women never call the police or go to a shelter. However, they do usually talk about the abuse with someone they trust," said Rachel Molepske, director of leadership operations and charitable programs for the Professional Beauty Association. "Because salon professionals are skilled and experienced listeners who are personally interested in those around them, many victims suffering from abuse feel comfortable confiding in them—even if they would never tell anyone else. For an abused woman, the salon may be an ideal environment to seek out help because it may be one of the few places she is allowed to go without her abuser."
Opponents of the requirement worry about the additional burden placed on stylists, some of whom may not necessarily share a close relationship with their clients now that hair care is easier, and less expensive, to maintain at home for longer periods of time.
"You do not have the in-depth relationship that we used to have," Charles Ifergan, owner of three salons in the Chicago area, told the Tribune. "It's hard for me to believe that a client would report (domestic violence) to a junior stylist."
Murphy has never had a client disclose allegations of abuse, but friends of his have, he said. For stylists who are close to their clients, he added, the policy is a natural extension of the job.
“I’m sure there are people out there who don’t feel it’s any of their business to meddle in people’s personal lives, but being such a hands-on industry, it’s something we all kind of do,” he said. “Being behind the chair for almost 20 years, my clients are more than just my clients. I myself would not feel it’s a burden. I would feel I would be helping them and, you never know, maybe even saving a life.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.