Two months ago, Katie Hughes received an unusual Facebook message from her Laramie hairstylist.

The stylist, Paige Elliot, had heard about a program in Illinois that trained beauty professionals to recognize the signs of domestic violence and refer their clients to support services. She wanted to know if Hughes, who works at the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, could help launch a similar program in the Cowboy State.

Hughes brought the idea to her coworkers at the coalition and at the end of October the group hosted its first online training for Wyoming beauty professionals. The program, called Cut It Out, teaches stylists about the realities of domestic violence and ensures they know where to refer clients if they believe they are victims of abuse.

“We’re not asking them to become an advocate,” Hughes said, “but to be supportive, to show compassion and to know where their clients can go for support.”

Thousands of people are abused by loved ones every year in Wyoming. In one day in 2014, the state’s domestic violence resource centers served more than 270 victims, according to data from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Beauticians, hair stylists and other salon workers are in a unique position to help survivors of domestic violence, Hughes said. Beauty professionals often develop a trusting relationship with their clients over an extended period of time and the sessions leave plenty of time for talking.

“They have more of a personal connection, so survivors are more likely to reach out and connect on a personal level about what they have going on in their life,” she said.

When she first heard of the program, Elliot thought the work was a little out of her job title. But the more she learned about the training she found that she wanted to be involved. She knows many of her clients very well — some have been with her since she started work as a stylist eight years ago. She hears about their work, their families and their relationships.

“I’m close with my clients and I care about them, whether I’ve done their hair once or a hundred times,” Elliot said in an email. “I feel like I’m a safe space for someone to open up, or maybe I’m the only person to ask if they’re okay.”

The training covers the power dynamics of domestic violence and what constitutes abuse. It trains stylists to recognize the signs that someone is being abused, like bruising across the body, low self-esteem or fear of their partner. Finally, beauty professionals learn to refer clients who are victims of abuse to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which connects survivors to local resources.

The training also combats common misunderstandings about the dynamics of domestic violence. For example, Hughes said that many people believe abusers hurt their victims due to mental illness or addiction, or because of a genetic trait. While those may be factors in the violence, abusing someone is always a choice, Hughes said.

The training program also explains the barriers that keep victims, who are often women, from leaving those who abuse them. Victims sometimes stay with an abuser because they fear the violence against them or their loved ones will escalate if they attempt to leave. Other victims have limited financial resources and fear leaving a provider will make them homeless or unable to feed their children.

“Victims are not weak,” Hughes said. “Victims are often staying in relationships because it’s risky to leave.”

Hughes said the training is a positive trend across the country. The Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence created the program in 2002 and in 2003 the National Cosmetology Association began offering the training across the U.S. Now, many states offer the program and Illinois passed a law last year that mandated all beauty professionals receive similar instruction.

A handful of participants signed up for the first online training on Oct. 30 and in the future Hughes hopes to host in-person training sessions across Wyoming.

“It’s a really exciting partnership that we’re going to build over time,” Hughes said.

Follow features editor Elise Schmelzer on Twitter @eliseschmelzer

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