WATERTOWN, S.D. (KELO) — Parents trust that if their child speaks up about sexual abuse and they take all the right steps to report it, the perpetrator will face consequences. But a Watertown mother says that didn’t happen in her child’s case of alleged sex abuse in a home daycare by a registered sex offender. KELOLAND Investigates looks into what happened, admissions of the crime and who dropped the ball when it came to pressing charges.
Autumn Strichertz brought her daughter to an in-home daycare at this house in Watertown run by Jessica Kaska, beginning just a few months after she was born. She felt comfortable leaving her child in Kaska’s care because she knew her.
Autumn Strichertz: Having a relationship with a person I did know, prior helped ease bringing her, or starting daycare.
Kennecke: Did you know about her father-in-law?
Strichertz: I did not, no.
Kennecke: Did you know he watched the kids?
Strichertz: I did not, no.
It wasn’t until after Strichertz’s daughter, at age four, came home from daycare and told her something shocking that Strichertz learned that Jessica sometimes left the children in someone else’s care.
“She told me that Pop-Pop had put his hands down her pants and stuck his fingers in her. And um, sorry, um, and I had to ask her to repeat that because I didn’t fully understand what was being said at that point in time and she very clearly said the same thing again,” Strichertz said.
Strichertz’s first instinct was to call the daycare provider and ask what had happened.
“And she said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. She never said anything like that to me,” Strichertz said.
Strichertz and the little girl’s father brought her to Prairie Lakes Hospital and reported it to the police.
“It’s interviewing; they have Child’s Voice visits. They interview witnesses; family members–there’s a lot of work that goes into it. They’re difficult cases,” Police Chief Tim Toomey said.
“The detectives that were interviewing us, actually said she was really brave to be able to talk about it because most kids do not come forward and say anything to anybody because they are too scared,” Strichertz said.
Police also told her about the man who her daughter referred to as “Pop-Pop.”
“And that’s actually where I was informed that he was a registered sex offender,” Stricherz said.
James Kaska, Jessica’s father-in-law is registered as a sex offender in South Dakota. Now 60, James Kaska was convicted of criminal sexual misconduct in Minnesota at the age of 20, for having sexual contact with a 14-year-old.
According to South Dakota law, someone convicted of a sex offense or whose name appears on the sex offender registry is prohibited from providing care to children in any daycare in the state and anyone who allows someone who they know is a sex offender to watch over children in any daycare commits a misdemeanor crime.
In a civil deposition, Jessica Kaska admitted that she knew that her father-in-law was a sex offender. She said she never told her daycare parents he sometimes watched the children because she didn’t see him as a threat. She said the children called him Pop-Pop and “adored him.” She admitted that she left the children in James’ care at least 4 times.
“It’s horrible that somebody who you know is a mother, who had her own children at this daycare, was more than okay to not only leave her children with him, but other people’s children that aren’t hers; that she thought it was okay never to mention a word to the parents to say, ‘I leave for appointments and I do this, and I’m not the one taking care of your children,'” Strichertz said.
With no one denying that James Kaska had illegally cared for children in the daycare and Strichertz’s daughter’s allegation of sex abuse, the Watertown police department put together its case.
Chief Toomey: I know they did a very thorough job and we talk to a lot of kids and we felt confident enough in the case to forward it to the state’s attorney’s office.
Kennecke: You thought you had a case?
Chief Toomey: We did, yes. In this case, there was a no-prosecute. I don’t know why that is. You’d have to ask the state’s attorney’s office, but I can say our investigator did a tremendous job on this case.
KELOLAND Investigates attempted to ask the Codington County State’s Attorney, Rebecca Morlock Reeves, why she didn’t prosecute James and Jessica Kaska. I reached out to her multiple times via email, phone and text, and even visited her office, but she never responded to my request for an interview.
Kennecke: Do you think that James Kaska should have been arrested and charged?
Chief Toomey: Like I said, we gather all the facts, I do believe there was enough there. But I don’t make those decisions.
Kennecke: What did that make you feel like when they said they weren’t going to charge him with anything?
Strichertz: I was mad and I was angry and I was going to scream at the top of my lungs until somebody listened. So then I started taking the steps of finding my own lawyer in order to get some sort of justice.
Strichertz hired Seamus Culhane to pursue a civil case against Jessica and James Kaska.
“There’s a real difficult chance of recovery, but at the same time, given from my perspective that there was nothing being done, I had to try something,” Culhane said.
As part of the civil suit, James Kaska was interviewed about the incident and he said in his deposition that Jessica told him it was okay for him to watch the children because she wasn’t registered with the state. However, the law applies to all daycares, even unregistered ones.
He then talked about the incident. He said, the kids were crawling over him and on top of him and then he let go of her. James said the little girl said, “You touched my butt.” James said he told her, “I did not mean to touch your butt, I’m sorry.” But he said he remembered his hands going underneath her clothing and her pants were partially down. James said the girl was pulling up her pants and saying, “touch my butt, touch my butt.”
“He didn’t even deny the act of being in her pants, himself. He didn’t deny that at all,” Strichertz said.
“I don’t understand. That’s why I’m sitting here. I don’t get it. And I’ve sent the same things to you that I sent to the state’s attorney in Codington County–the transcripts, the admission, and stuff–I don’t know,” Culhane said.
KELOLAND Investigates paid a visit to James Kaska’s house to ask him what happened.
Kennecke: Hi, are you James?
James Kaska: Yep.
Kennecke: I’m Angela Kennecke from KELO-TV. I’m here to talk to you about Autumn Strichertz daughter. In June of 2019. What happened? James, what happened?
Kaska: Do you want to talk to my lawyer?
Kennecke: Do you want to give me your lawyer’s name? Can you tell me what happened? Did you molest…
Kaska: Where did you come from?
Kennecke: Did you molest the little girl?
Kaska: No, I did not.
Kennecke: You did not?
Kennecke: You said in your deposition that her pants were down. James?
Kaska: Excuse me?
Kennecke: You said in your deposition that her pants were down when you were watching them?
Kaska: I’m calling the police.
Kennecke: What should happen here?
Strichertz: I think he should be behind bars. I think he needs to not be allowed to walk around freely. I think she, the daycare provider, needs to also have some sort of jail time to be held accountable for putting people…because it wasn’t just my child being left in this man’s care. It was everybody’s child at that daycare.
In civil court, Strichertz received a summary judgment for negligence and battery against Jessica and James Kaska, who failed to show up for the hearing.
She says the incident has taken its toll on her little girl, who is now 6.
“When this happened she was fully potty trained. She did not have any issues at night. And that has reverted back. She does have accidents at night. She does have nightmares,” Strichertz said.
Strichertz says she feels caught up in a nightmare that won’t end until James Kaska faces criminal charges.
“You were let down by somebody you left in charge with your children. You’re let down by a justice system that you have been raised and known to trust. And when you do something wrong, you’re supposed to be held accountable for it, and to see that wasn’t the case, was heartbreaking,” Strichertz said.
Jessica Kaska has since moved and we’ve tried unsuccessfully to contact her for comment. The next step in the civil case is for a judge to decide on damages against James and Jessica Kaska.