A 3-year-old Chandler girl who died after police discovered her on the bathroom floor of her home following unbearable belt beatings administered by her mother’s boyfriend will be remembered Tuesday on the lawn of Arizona’s State Capitol.
As part of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, there will be 51 empty chairs arranged on the Senate lawn of the capitol at 10:30 a.m. Each chair will represent a child who died from maltreatment, including neglect and severe child abuse, in Arizona during 2008.
Schala Vera died on Aug. 31, 2009. And while she will not be represented by an empty chair this year, her death spurred the effort by a multi-agency Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Coalition. The coalition was initiated by the Chandler Police Department last year and consists of more than 50 state and local agencies and nonprofits.
“The empty chairs are a visual for people to grasp how many children we are losing to child abuse and the need for the coalition,” said Derrek Hofrichter, spokesman for the Arizona Chapter of Childhelp, a nonprofit child abuse outreach organization.
“Chandler police Detective Gary Fuller said something needed to be done because he didn’t want to see a case like that of Schala Vera again.”
In 2009, Chandler experienced six homicides, three of which included children who died from severe child abuse. Schala was the oldest of those victims.
In 2008, two Chandler homicides were the result of severe child abuse. Mesa experienced one homicide from severe child abuse in 2008, down from three such deaths in 2007, according to Det. Mike Melendez, a Mesa police spokesman.
Tempe did not experience any homicides from severe child abuse cases last year, but had one in 2008 and one in 2007, according to Sgt. Steve Carbajal, a Tempe police spokesman.
Although Gilbert experienced at least two homicides from severe child abuse last year, statistics for such deaths in 2008 were not available.
Authorities say Schala’s death was one of the worst cases of child abuse they had ever seen.
Chandler police discovered her lying between the toilet and the vanity on the bathroom floor not breathing inside a home in the 2300 block of East Wildhorse Place. Schala had endured horrific beatings in the home for at least the previous two months, police said. The belt officers discovered on the vanity matched the imprints of the buckle and stitching that were found on Schala’s body, according to a police report.
After she collapsed from the beating and was lying on the bathroom floor, a door was repeatedly slammed into her head, according to the report.
The cause of her death was ruled a homicide from multiple blunt force injuries, according to the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Schala’s mother, Susan Witbracht, 27, and boyfriend, Dauntorian Sanders, 23, each have been charged with first-degree murder in the girl’s death. Witbracht told police she witnessed Sanders repeatedly beat her daughter with the belt and drop her to floor the day of her death. But she did not intervene. She told authorities she still “adored him,” and that he was a “great man,” according to Maricopa County Superior Court documents.
Sanders told police he would beat Schala for not listening and he admitted he beat her more forcefully on the day she died, according to the documents. Schala’s mother told police she beat her daughter on occasion, but not on the day of her death.
Witbracht and Sanders are scheduled to appear for a hearing in Maricopa County Superior Court on April 15.
Det. Fuller, who responded to the crime involving Schala, swiftly recognized Chandler had a problem with child abuse and approached the department’s public information officers to educate residents, according to Det. Frank Mendoza, Chandler police spokesman.
“We realized there was a need to provide intervention, resources and education for awareness and for people to get help,” Mendoza said.
Although Chandler’s fatal child abuse cases involved parents of the child or live-in boyfriends or girlfriends, Mendoza said anyone is capable of abusing a child.
“We don’t think child abuse is restricted to any individual, but can be any caregiver of the child,” Mendoza said.