After nearly three years, the little girl’s name still stands out among those who can’t forget her, the little girl who was a victim of what Chandler police detectives described as the worse case of fatal child abuse they had ever seen.
The 3-year-old’s name and horrific death also is connected to what the city of Chandler saw in 2009 as a need to form an organization to bring an awareness to the problem of severe child abuse and educate people on its signs and how to prevent it.
That group, the Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness Coalition, will launch Child Abuse Awareness Month by hosting an expo and memorial ceremony April 7 at Chandler’s Tumbleweed Park.
A quilt with 70 squares will be on display representing the 70 children that died from child abuse and neglect in Arizona in 2010, according to statistics from Child Protective Services. The 2010 statistics are a slight increase from the 64 children who died at the hands of abusers in 2009, up from 51 in 2008. The 2011 statistics have not been completed yet.
Although the national number of severe child abuse cases are down, the cases in Arizona are up and are becoming more severe, according to Robert Bell, Children’s Justice Coordinator for Maricopa County.
“We’re alarmed by the trend,” said Bell, who also serves as the chairman for the Child Abuse and Awareness Coalition. “It’s not the direction we would like to see the numbers go.”
“Be a hero to a child, and report abuse if you suspect it,” Bell added. “In nearly all cases of severe child abuse cases, no one ever made any initial reports of it. To make a difference, we have to know about it. You can save the life of a child by making that evaluation.”
Speakers at the expo will include Chandler City Council members Trinity Donovan and Rick Heumann, Chandler Police Chief Sherry Kiyler and former Arizona Cardinal Bertrand Berry.
Shannon, a child who was abused and treated at the Childhelp Children’s Center of Arizona, also will be speaking.
The day will be a grim reminder of horrific incidents that should be reported, beatings that often are spurred by financial pressures at home brought on by unemployment or the mothers’ boyfriends who lash out at children they view as an inconvenience, experts say.
In 2009, half of Chandler’s six homicides were from severe child abuse, the victims ranging from 3 weeks to 3 years old.
Police said Schala Vera died Aug. 31, 2009, at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, Dauntorian Sanders. Sanders admitted to holding Schala by her ankle as he dangled her over the upstairs bannister area while he beat her with a belt, a common occurrence in the household, police said. He also dropped her on the floor a number of times while beating her, the report stated.
Police officers discovered Schala lying between a toilet and a bathroom sink where she crawled to hide.
Schala’s mother, Susan Witbracht, then 29, who never reported any abuse of her daughter to authorities, told police Sanders “was a good man.”
Sanders and Witbracht were both charged with first-degree murder. They remain in a Maricopa County jail and their trials are scheduled to begin in early 2013.
On average, one child is abused or neglected every hour in Arizona. During the state’s 2011 fiscal year, Arizona Child Protective Services received more than 34,500 reports involving the alleged maltreatment of approximately 54,000 children. Nationally, five children die each day from abuse.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, whose office prosecutes many of the cases that reach felony level offenses, said, “As a civilized community we cannot and will not tolerate adults who harm or kill children with such brutality. There is nothing a child could ever do to remotely justify or excuse this conduct.”
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