The first person to spot domestic abuse may be an unlikely prospect: the victim’s hair stylist, nail technician or massage therapist.

Victims often confide in these intimate professionals in comfortable surroundings – and then stop coming.

But that still leaves at least one final chance to get educational resources and sources of help into their hands first.

The abuse spotted may be a bruise – or an overwhelming exertion of control.

Heidi Markow is standing before a group of hair stylists, massage therapists and nail technicians at TC Salon & Spa in Bethlehem, Pa., but she’s not there to talk perms or pampering.

She has something more serious on her mind. She wants to know if any of them have seen signs of possible domestic abuse in their clients.

The hands start going up.

Jase Defreitas said he noticed a bruise on his client’s side during a massage.

Skin care specialist Alison Norton recalled giving a facial to a woman whose cell phone wouldn’t stop ringing with calls from her husband.

And TC owner Frank Shipman said he’s noticed husbands who never leave their wives’ sides during a hair appointment, even dictating the color and cut.

"The control is frightening," he said.

Domestic violence can happen to anyone, said Markow, a former hairstylist who formed the Beginning Over Foundation to raise awareness about domestic violence after her sister, Robin Shaffer, was killed by her estranged husband, Jeffrey Ogle, on June 15, 2005.

"It’s not just people who aren’t wealthy or uneducated," she said. "It can be that doctor’s wife or that lawyer’s wife. It can be your next-door neighbor."

As part of her efforts, she conducted the state’s first Cut It Out seminar at TC Salon on Monday, drawing about 20 spa professionals. Cut It Out is a national program that teaches hair stylists to recognize signs of emotional and physical abuse because they often have long-standing relationships with their clients.

Spa professionals aren’t expected to serve as counselors, but provide literature and resources for victims to get help.

Roughly one out of three women is physically or sexually abused by their husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives, according to a 1998 Commonwealth Fund Survey. Research shows women are more likely to confide in someone they trust personally than call police.

"Often, women tell their stylists things they don’t even tell their families," said Heidi Ulshafer, director of operations at TC.

Domestic abuse doesn’t have to be physical, Markow said. A cell phone might go off repeatedly, appointments are canceled or a woman will pay for services with cash and a credit card to hide how much she spent.

Norton said one of her clients was open about being abused, but didn’t want to leave her husband because of their children.

"Her behavior changed," she said. "She used to look forward to coming in and then she just stopped."

Shipman said it’s a pattern he’s noticed with other customers in abusive situations.

"Once they’ve broken down and shared we never see them again," he said.

During the seminar, Markow showed a video that instructed stylists what to do if they suspect a client is being abused. Face them and make eye contact. Don’t draw attention to the client by gasping at their plight. Ask if they’d like the phone number of a local shelter, don’t force it on them.

"You have the opportunity to save lives," said Markow, who hopes to conduct seminars at other salons throughout the state and New Jersey. "No other profession sees as many women as you do each day."

TC salon plans to put out cards with the number of the National Domestic Violence Hotline in rest rooms and spa rooms where women can take one without anyone noticing, and it will offer another training session.

Cut It Out was started in 2002 by the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham in partnership with the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence and has become a national program of the Salons Against Domestic Abuse Fund. More than 2,000 educational kits have distributed, according to the program’s Web site.

Markow said she never got the satisfaction of seeing her brother-in-law sentenced to life in prison because after shooting her sister he turned the gun on himself. Educating stylists about domestic violence is a positive way to channel her grief and anger, she said.

"It’s a stepping stone to getting out of a dark hole and shedding light on domestic violence," she said. "It’s not something to be ashamed about."

SOURCE: Fort Wayne News-Sentinel and Florida Divorce Law Blog