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KIYC: New Jersey has the worst record in tristate when it comes to testing rape kits

New Jersey is one of only a dozen states where prosecutors routinely choose not to test kits, even when survivors want them tested.

Walt Kane

Jun 6, 2024, 2:42 AM

Updated 14 days ago


If you’re a victim of sexual assault, law enforcement’s commitment to investigating your case could depend largely on where you live. A Kane In Your Corner investigation finds that unlike New York and Connecticut, New Jersey does not routinely test every survivor’s rape kit for DNA, even when the victims want testing to be done. It’s a policy some advocates say sends a message to survivors that the crime is not taken seriously.
Natasha Alexenko was 23 years old when she was sexually assaulted on the rooftop of her apartment building in Manhattan. “I thought I was going to die the entire time,” she says. “It was humiliating. I felt like I lost all my power.”
Like many survivors, Alexenko underwent an hourslong forensic exam, where nurses collected DNA. Then, for nearly a decade, she heard nothing, until she received a call informing her that her rape kit had finally been tested. It had been one of 11,000 kits that were backlogged in New York City at the time. When prosecutors finally tested the DNA from her case, they realized she had been the victim of a serial rapist.
“The man that assaulted me had been on a nationwide crime spree,” Alexenko recalls.
If Alexenko lived in New Jersey, rather than New York, her rape kit might still be sitting untested. Kane In Your Corner found New Jersey is one of only a dozen states that allows prosecutors to pick and choose which rape kits are tested. The result is a “hidden backlog” of kits, nearly 1,000 a year, that never get sent to the crime lab. New Jersey does not even maintain data on how many kits are untested due to the discretion of prosecutors. Kane In Your Corner obtained the data by scrutinizing three years of semiannual crime data from each of New Jersey’s 21 counties.
The situation is very different in the rest of the tristate area. In Connecticut, there is no backlog of untested rape kits. All kits were tested as of 2018. In New York, the law requires all new rape kits to be tested but the state is still working through its backlog.
The New Jersey Office of the Attorney General insists testing every kit is unnecessary. Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the NJOAG’s Division of Violence Intervention and Victim Assistance, notes that “75% of sexual assault survivors actually know the person who caused them harm.”
Some advocates contend that this kind of thinking is dangerous and outdated.
"Most criminals are not specialists,” says Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, a group that advocates for rape survivors. “They're not just committing one crime and stopping. They're generally serial offenders. And we won’t be able to make the connections between cases if we don’t test all kits.”
Alexenko says for the nearly 10 years her rape kit sat untested, she felt like her life was on hold. With her rapist finally caught, she now works as an advocate for sexual assault survivors and hopes that someday soon, all rape kits will be tested in all 50 states, including New Jersey.
“If you announce, ‘Hey, we're processing all kits,’ the message you're sending to survivors is, ‘This is a trustworthy system’,” she says. “Each rape kit represents a human being who's gone through trauma, who perhaps is unable to move on. That's a life in each kit.”

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