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Survivors of sexual assault or gender-based harm now have 24-hour advocates in their corner

A new trauma-informed program at USC Student Health offers personalized support for survivors, both on and off campus.

Katt Morales is more than willing to answer the call to support survivors of sexual assault or gender-based harm at any hour of the day or night; she’s passionate about it. She’s also one of five new USC Student Health advocates starting this semester, dedicated solely to helping those survivors at USC.

Morales is well prepared for the task. Prior to joining the advocacy program in Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention and Services, she spent her evenings and weekends answering the 24/7 rape crisis hotline for the East L.A. Women’s Center. Her commitment to that role landed her in the field, summoned by nurses or police officers who encountered a sexual assault survivor.

Her presence was most often requested for sexual assault forensic exams or law enforcement interviews, but she was willing to go anywhere and advocate for whatever the survivor needed — providing victim’s rights education, offering options and referrals, and generally acting as a support system in what is often a survivor’s darkest hour.

In 2018, Morales began working in USC Student Health’s contact center, answering calls for general appointments, specialist referrals and health inquiries. But her heart continued to be with survivor support and advocacy. When USC Student Health developed its advocate program, modeled after rape crisis centers in the community, she knew she wanted to be part of it.

“We’re on call 24/7. We’ll go to the hospital with you; go to court with you; help if you need help navigating social services or seeking financial assistance,” she said. “We are 100% confidential and we are survivor-centered. Everything we assist with is based on the decisions the survivor makes. We are here to help them with the healing process.”

USC expands services for sexual assault survivors

Brenda Ingram, director for Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention and Services, says the program expands the scope of support USC can provide to survivors. In the past, if survivors needed to go to the emergency room or a sexual assault response team location outside of USC Student Health’s business hours, they could get a ride with the Department of Public Safety. But many individuals don’t want to involve law enforcement after an incident, preferring the accompaniment of a confidential advocate. Now, they have an option for accompaniment by a confidential resource and can travel via a private ride-hailing service provided by USC Student Health.

“These advocates are well versed in community resources, such as the criminal justice system or family court,” Ingram said. “And they will work closely with campus partners to ensure that any barriers to services that clients may encounter are eliminated or minimized.”

The program is the latest in a series of enhancements to USC Student Health services in the last few years, including a systemwide transition to trauma-informed care and leading-edge prevention efforts such as affirmative consent workshops required for all new undergraduate students.

This institution is huge and there are actually a ton of resources, but many students aren’t aware of them.

Katt Morales

Morales, who is now pursuing her master’s degree in public health, believes the advocate program is an enormous step forward for USC.

“This institution is huge and there are actually a ton of resources, but many students aren’t aware of them. And it’s hard to navigate all of it when this is the first time that you’re on your own without your parents and then you’re going through trauma,” she said. “Students will find advocates more personalized than other resources. We’ll go with them anywhere.”

While the job might seem emotionally taxing to some, Morales says she and her fellow advocates are cut from a certain cloth, and they believe their work is creating real change to systems and to the lives of survivors.

“To wake up every morning with a purpose is very rewarding to me,” she said. “And I get to tackle all of the issues I’m passionate about in this role — race equity, homelessness, LGBTQ advocacy — all within sexual assault. It is very important to me to help disenfranchised communities, and I feel I am doing that.”

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