Ex-day care worker pleads guilty in shaken-baby case
TAMPA - For three years, Kristy Schwade has trekked to the courthouse and sat through hearings in hopes of hearing a former day care worker admit to hurting her son. Today, she got her wish. Rebecca Saunders, 38, pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated child abuse in the May 2007 shaken-baby case that left Kaleb Schwade, then 5 months old, with permanent brain injuries. Saunders remained silent, only admitting she was pleading guilty because it was in her best interest.That was enough for Schwade and her family. "This is her admitting she was guilty," she said. "It wasn't a jury that convicted her; she convicted herself." Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe sentenced Saunders to 16 months in prison, accepting a plea deal worked out between prosecutors and her attorneys. Saunders got credit for the 487 days she has spent in jail awaiting trial, meaning she could be eligible for immediate release. "Ms. Saunders wants to put this behind her," defense attorney Jennifer Spradley said. The Schwade family wanted more time but accepted the deal. "This is a good step for us," Kristy Schwade said. "We can finally close this door and move forward." Schwade, who is expecting the couple's third child, was the only family member to speak at the hearing. "You took nearly all his brain," she said, adding that she and her husband, Josh, are left with a lifetime of caring for "a newborn stuck in an adult's body." "Your actions hurt us to our core," she said. "Your sentence is temporary; ours is a life sentence." The injuries left Kaleb without any cognitive ability. He needs around-the-clock care; a pump forces food into a hole in his stomach. "His life will consist of doctors, hospitals and therapies," his mother said. The couple are suing Saunders and the owners of Hannah's House day care. They also are suing the trustees of Idlewild Baptist Church, saying they misrepresented that Hannah's House was affiliated with the church's day care operations. Schwade said the day she dropped Kaleb off at Hannah's House was the last time she saw her son smile. When Kaleb's grandmother picked him up later that day, he was lethargic and wouldn't wake up. The family rushed him to Tampa General Hospital, where doctors diagnosed multiple head injuries. But conflicting medical testimony prompted the plea offer, said Assistant State Attorney Kimberly Hindman. Defense experts also would have testified Kaleb suffered from a prior brain injury and a bleeding disorder. Both sides admitted a trial would have been a risk. The Schwade family interrupted its vacation to fly back for the hearing. An emotional and sometimes angry Kristy Schwade recounted the day her son was injured and her family's life since. "I dropped off my amazing little boy to you and trusted you to care for him," she said. "I don't need to stand here and say what a horrible person you are. That's common knowledge."
Reporter Tom Brennan can be reached at (813) 259-7698.