When Stephanie Estopare was 15 years old, she occasionally babysat for the children of a family in a neighboring home in west suburban Plainfield -- until one day, four years ago, when she says she was sexually abused by the children’s father. Estopare and her mother filed a police report that same day.
Eventually, the neighbor – Clinton J. Kuchta – would be convicted as a result of Stephanie’s allegations, but only of one count of misdemeanor battery, something that raised concern with the judge in the case. The judge questioned why Kuchta had not been charged with a felony that would signify the sexual nature of the allegations against him.
Now, because Kuchta was only convicted of battery, he is not a sex offender in the eyes of the law, and he does not have to register on the state’s Sex Offender Registry. Kuchta has denied all allegations of sexual abuse in response to a subsequent civil lawsuit filed against him by Estopare.
There are other cases that raise this same issue. After examining more than 1,500 incidents in the Chicago area of strangers approaching and luring children for sex, NBC 5 Investigates has found a startling number of cases in which men are convicted of a charge such as “disorderly conduct” or “battery,” a conviction that raises no red flags that someone might be of danger around children.
Now, as a direct result of NBC 5 Investigates’ findings, a state lawmaker has introduced legislation to try to plug this loophole in Illinois’ Sex Offender Registration Act, to require people convicted of “disorderly conduct” to register as sex offenders if their crime was sexual in nature.
“One [such person] slipping through the cracks is too many,” says State Rep. Mike Zelewski, a father and former prosecutor whose district includes west-suburban Riverside. If his amendment passes, Zelewski says child-lurers convicted only of disorderly conduct “will likely get nowhere near a school; nowhere near a park district; nowhere near a day care center.”
Some disagree with this proposal, including noted defense attorney Richard Kling, a professor at Chicago Kent College of Law.
“The danger is that [with] disorderly conduct, the guy can get up to six months in jail as a misdemeanor,” Kling says. “But he is going to be registering for ten years. I think the punishment, potentially, doesn’t fit the crime.”
Estopare’s mother Tina is proposing to change state law in a slightly different way.
“There’s a loophole in the system that needs to be closed,” she said, and she wants Illinois law to mirror “Megan’s Law” in California, which allows a judge to use his or her own discretion to require someone convicted of any crime to register as a sex offender, if the judge determines that the crime was sexual in nature.
Tina Estopare hopes to introduce the same measure here and wants to call it “Stephanie’s Law.” She has the support of the prosecutors and others in Will County.
“It is for our children,” Tina Estopare said. “It’s for our grandchildren. It’s for our state. It’s what’s right.”
And Estopare, now 19 years old, agrees. “I’m very proud of my mom for all the work she’s done,” she said, “and this will definitely help thousands of kids.”