BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — According to California Penal Code Section 647.6, annoying or molesting a child is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in county jail and a maximum fine of $5,000. One Kern County family is hoping their story can help push for stricter legislative change surrounding child molestation.
In 2021, the family of Ashlee Lauterio filed a case against a neighbor for alleged molestation, but no arrest was made until just last month. Ashlee and her mother, Antoinette Svihula, say it has been an uphill battle, but their goal is for no other families to go through what they say they have.
"It is only a misdemeanor," said Ashlee Lauterio. "It is not a felony, and I feel like he is not going to get a lot of time. I still feel like he is not going to get a lot of time for it."
Lauterio and Svihula say having child molestation be a misdemeanor with such light penalties is unacceptable.
"These are our kids. These are innocent children. We are their voice. We have to stand up for them," said Svihula. "If we don't, nobody else will. We have to get legislation changes because it is not working. They are failing our kids."
That's why the family says they're speaking out now in hopes of pushing for more severe penalties.
Lauterio is now 18 years old, but she alleges that when she was 12, her neighbor and family friend James Edward Lee, 42, began touching her inappropriately.
"A lot of nights crying, thinking he was going to get away with it," said Lauterio, explaining that she kept quiet for the next 6 years out of fear, until 2021 when a video changed everything.
"Somebody came forward with the video and gave it to my mom of my little brother, and that helped me tell my side of the story and tell them what was happening with me, because I was scared for so long," said Lauterio.
The video, according to sheriff's reports obtained by 23ABC, showed Lee with Svihula's then 12-year-old son. This is when the family says they found out their son was being molested, and also what Lauterio says encouraged her to tell her mom about her alleged encounters with Lee.
Svihula says her kids will never be the same.
The Kern County Sheriff's Office conducted interviews about the case back in August of 2021 and August of 2022, but Lee was not arrested until March 30, 2023.
Earlier in April, Lee appeared in court, and court records show that he has been charged with 2 counts of "annoy/etc a child under 18" under penal code 647.6. Lee has pleaded not guilty.
Lee has pleaded not guilty and now awaits a pretrial conference, which is when the judge and lawyers meet to see if a trial is needed or if the case can be settled.
Lee does have a public defender appointed to him. That public defender said that due to the case just getting started, they have no comment currently.
Lee is scheduled to be back in court on May 26 for the pretrial conference. In the meantime, the family asks that if there are any other victims, to please speak out.
IN-DEPTH: CHILD ABUSE RESOURCES
Any family going through a traumatic event, whether it's a crime, violence, or a natural disaster, wants to make sure their child has all the help they need to cope with that trauma. But some may be wondering how to start that process or even where to look for help.
Stacy Kuwahara, Executive Director of Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services has some advice.
"I think it's really important to start with your insurance provider, see what's covered, and look online to get direction. There is so much information that you can get just at your fingertips," said Kuwahara. "Our website, Kern Behavioral Health, is a great place to go for local resources. If we are not the provider, if somebody has a private insurance plan, start with calling your insurance provider."
Kuwahara adds that there is also help available for those without insurance that can be accessed by calling KBHR's specialized access phone line at 868-8080. Care specialists at that number can help you find affordable care for your child.
If you suspect that a child is being abused, you can always call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453