On a yearly basis, more than 1,000 sexual assault forensic exams — or rape kits — are collected from New Jersey women who, after a traumatic experience, want to preserve DNA evidence of their perpetrator.

But what happens with those kits after collection is essentially a mystery. As of now, there's no system in place to record how many kits are sent to labs for testing, and no known reason for the many kits that remain on shelves of law enforcement agencies across the state.

Answers to these questions could be much clearer under legislation approved this week by a New Jersey Assembly panel, and given the green light months ago by the full state Senate.

"Even though the rape kits are being utilized in these law enforcement agencies, we need to make sure that best practices are incorporated," said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen, who sponsors the measure that would conduct a study of untested rape kits.

Every law enforcement agency in the state that handles sexual abuse examination kits would be required to complete a survey developed by the state regarding their kits that not have been submitted for testing.

Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said officials in New Jersey collect between 1,300 and 1,500 rape kits each year.

There's concern nationally, Teffenhart said, of a "backlog" of untested rape kits. But she said there's no data suggesting that's the case in the Garden State.

The real issue here, she said, is a "data gap." Some victims who used the test may not choose to move forward with prosecution, so the test doesn't need to be submitted for analysis. In other cases, the prosecution may choose to move forward without the rape kit as evidence.

"The reality is that we don't need to place all our confidence in a rape kit in and of itself," Teffenhart said, noting that up to 80 percent of sexual assault survivors know their perpetrator. "A rape kit simply usually affirms that there's been an exchange of bodily fluids that can be detected through that analysis. It doesn't help us when we get into the courtroom and we're nullifying a consent argument."

Per older policy, law enforcement in New Jersey used to destroy rape kits within 90 days. NJCASA worked with the state to expand their validity to at least five years.

The bipartisan measure cleared the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee on Monday. It was unanimously passed by the full Senate in June.

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