When Valerie Lopez started looking into ways to tackle sexual assault at USC, she stumbled upon a question that would try to answer for months: Why doesn’t USC offer forensic exams for victims? In the class ITP-499: “Innovation: From Idea to Impact,” Lopez — a sophomore majoring in law, history and culture — and her group decided they’d try to bring rape kits to campus, an idea that led them to conduct legal research and interview staff members at USC and across the country.
Currently, victims of sexual assault who come to the Engemann Student Health Center are referred to the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center, approximately 45 minutes away from campus. The RTC boasts of the country’s leading experts in trauma care, but the lack of on-campus forensic exams spurred Lopez and two other students to investigate the feasibility of bringing rape kits to USC. Though Lopez and University administrators share a goal, their views on treating victims differ in a major way. USC believes that the best option for rape treatment is at a full-service facility filled with specialized professionals, even if it is a long drive away. To Lopez, though, that distance could make all the difference.
Engemann clinicians are trained to take vaginal and rectal swabs, but the health center staff feels that the RTC is better equipped to treat victims. The Los Angeles County Hospital has a rape treatment center as well, but Engemann has a close relationship with the RTC and values its educational options and support services.
“That is the best place for them,” said Mildred Wenger, interim co-medical director at Engemann. “If it was my mother, my child, my friend, I would want them to get the best care. We can give them the best care that we can, but we’re not full-service.”
Wenger stressed that the options its staff provides, in addition to its demeanor and tact, make the RTC a necessary resource. Another key reason Wenger would refer a patient to the RTC is Engemann’s inability to collect data, like hair samples or DNA. She explained that there is no chain of custody, or paper trail of physical evidence. Her staff cannot collect this data, but Wenger explained that the RTC can — which ensures that if a patient decides to press charges or file a restraining order despite any initial reluctance, the option is still available.
“We don’t destroy the evidence ever,” said Gail Abarbanel, founder and director of the RTC.
The center provides free care for children and adults who seek help after a sexual assault. It’s open 24 hours a day, and since its inception in 1974, it has served more than 50,000 victims. Over the years, it’s seen advancements in DNA technology and improved access to the criminal justice system.
“The RTC has very comprehensive services, and victims have lots of choices and options, so they don’t have to go to many different agencies,” Abarbanel said. “The most important thing is to help them have access [to] 24-hour emergency care and forensics and counseling.”
According to Abarbanel, the center sees about three to four new victims a day — some, but not all, of whom are college students. Other victims come every day for ongoing services. When a victims come in, the staff members give them options so they can make informed choices. The process includes medical care, even if victims aren’t aware of any physical injuries.
Though the RTC is not funded or managed by USC, the treatment center has a close relationship with Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention and Services on campus. According to Wenger, the RTC seeks to fill in the gaps of what the Engemann staff cannot accomplish. Wenger and her team frequently meet with RSVP and have full clinical staff meetings to emphasize sensitivity training and patient comfort. But despite these efforts, Wenger would rather send a victim to Santa Monica, because there, she’s confident that they will take care of every aspect of a patient’s journey.
“I don’t like to do anything here if we can’t do it right,” Wenger said.
Struggling for support
Despite the quality of care at the RTC, students have expressed concerns about the accessibility of the center. Lopez feels that 45 minutes is too far, especially immediately after an assault.
“Honestly, from personal experience and the experience of others I’m very close to, the first few hours are critical in terms of who you tell, who you trust,” Lopez said. “If USC was my immediate resource, if I needed to be physically taken care of both medically and with a forensic exam, I probably would come back to RSVP to get therapy or file a Title IX case. I would feel more trusted at the school.”
A potential solution the group proposed is to train current Engemann employees to conduct forensic exams so students could have immediate help in a community they are already familiar with. They researched the cost and time commitment of training and verified the information by looking at schools with trained nurses, including Oregon State University and Indiana University. A sexual assault nurse at Indiana University told the group that the cost of training was between $400 and $500 per nurse, including 40 hours of training, and that the state typically pays for rape kits.
“I’m sure it’s more complicated than we know,” Lopez said, “but if other schools do it, and they’re much bigger schools like Indiana, I feel like we’re definitely capable.”
USC is far from the only elite university without on-site rape kits. In Lopez’s research, she found that only about four schools in the U.S. News top 100 and only about 10 out of all schools in the United States have forensic exams for sexual assault.
Lopez and her group have already met with multiple administrators and have plans to present to Provost Michael Quick on May 2. Lopez explained that they can’t market their proposal as a gain for the University, because although relatively cheap, implementation of the plan will cost money, and she believes with more accessible treatment, that reports of rape will go up — which might end up looking negative for the University.
“We’re having trouble finding a reason that would benefit [USC],” Lopez said. “That’s where we’re at now. There’s not much more we can do.”
This isn’t the first group of students trying to bring rape kits to campus, and it may not be the last. In 2014, students created an online petition to bring sexual assault nurse examiners to campus, which garnered nearly 700 signatures, and University officials responded by emphasizing the high quality of the RTC.
“I think the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center is wonderful,” Lopez said, “and it’s beautiful that we even have that resource. They have so many different [services] — I just think that it’s nothing our health center isn’t capable of.”
Erika Lee contributed to this report.