New Jersey is creating a new online database to allow sexual assault survivors to track cases

The trauma-informed online database aims to lessen the added burden for sexual assault survivors to monitor their cases.

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The Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex building

Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton, N.J. on March 31, 2022 (P. Kenneth Burns/WHYY)

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Efforts are moving forward in New Jersey to create an online database that allows survivors of sexual assault to more easily track their cases and monitor the status of their Sexual Assault Forensic Exam (SAFE) kits.

This comes one year after New Jersey Attorney General Matt Platkin issued a Law Enforcement Directive mandating prolonged retention — from five years to 20 years — of evidence, including DNA samples, from sexual assault medical exams.

Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the Department of Law and Public Safety’s Division of Violence Intervention and Victim Assistance, said that retaining evidence for longer periods of time is key.

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“[It] affords us more time to have survivors move through their healing journey, better understand what the criminal justice process will look like for them, so they can engage in this process at a time that’s right for them.”

Teffenhart added most survivors don’t tell anyone that they were attacked until five years after it happened, “so when we think about what it would mean for a survivor to have to make a decision immediately after their victimization to move forward with a criminal justice process, it’s not trauma-informed or survivor-centered.”

Teffenhart stressed sexual assault is traumatic and draining, and if a survivor decides to seek justice in court, “there’s a lot of disclosures that have to take place, and many survivors aren’t ready to make those disclosures or to move through a criminal justice process immediately after their victimization.”

Under the current system, survivors have to get on the phone and call different prosecutors’ offices and police departments to try and track down the status of their SAFE kits, speaking with officials in what for many survivors is an unfamiliar system.

“Which, as you could imagine, could be a barrier to someone who has just experienced something so traumatizing,” said Teffenhart, “and so having access to an online portal really reaffirms a survivor’s autonomy.”

New Jersey Attorney General Matt Platkin said they are building the new SAFE kit online database “while simultaneously working with law enforcement throughout the state to ensure that we have information to populate this platform once it’s ready — this is going to be, I think, really transformational.”

The construction of the database is being funded by a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative.

Platkin said instead of different law enforcement agencies storing different SAFE kits, “we will be standardizing that data collection, and it will make it much easier for survivors to access that information.”

Teffenhart said that once the new data platform is completed, hopefully sometime later this year, survivors will be able to find out information about the status of their kit, whether it’s been tested and the results of the analysis.

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“Survivors having access to that information in real-time is a powerful tool for their healing, and also for them building confidence in the criminal justice system’s ability to support their case,” she said. “When their kit is collected, they’ll receive log-in information for the portal, and information is power.”

After a reported sexual assault, survivors must have an exam within three to five days for the evidence to be preserved.

The directive prohibits law enforcement officers and prosecutors from refusing to submit evidence for testing solely based on their belief that the sexual act was consensual.

Teffenhart said this is important because sexual assault can and does take place in some marriages and long-term relationships, and “we’re trying to update New Jersey’s practices to be survivor-centered, trauma-informed and based on current realities and data.”

She noted in most cases, “acts of sexual violence are not about sex at all, but rather about power and control. It’s an opportunity for someone to exert dominance over someone else.”

She said it’s impossible to get a clear picture of how many sexual assaults take place in New Jersey every year, because the data only includes cases that get reported. The FBI confirms sexual assault is the most under-reported crime in the nation.

“Any data point that we’re looking at as it relates to law enforcement reports of sexual violence are grossly under representative of the number of survivors who come forward,” Teffenhart added.

If you or someone you know is a victim or witness of sexual violence in New Jersey, you can contact the statewide sexual violence hotline at 1-800-601-7200.

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