Her name was Destiny. She began life addicted to cocaine and died 18 months later, shaken so brutally that her brain knocked against her skull, according to sheriff's officials.
The child's death prompted the quick firing of the social worker assigned to monitor her family by the county Department of Children and Family Services. The dismissal reflected the strict approach of Peter Digre, who took over the department four years ago with a mandate to reform what many saw as a failing operation.
But the social worker's dismissal, along with the firing of seven other department employees in 1994 for alleged gross neglect, criminal behavior or major ethical lapses, enraged rank-and-file social workers.
On Friday, more than 300 of them picketed the department's headquarters near Koreatown, blaming the county for keeping them from doing their jobs by overloading them with cases.
"As long as we have these high caseloads there's no way to guarantee a child's not going to die," said Wilma Cadorna, a spokeswoman for Service Employees International Union, Local 535, which represents county social workers.
Chanting "Workers don't kill children!" the social workers said that the department's management is making them scapegoats for problems created by a shortage of social workers.
"You can do everything you're supposed to do and still get fired. It makes them look good when they fire someone. It looks like they took care of the problem," said Vern Bauerly, a social worker assigned to Covina.
Paul Freedlund, deputy director of the department, said that he is sympathetic to the stress social workers and their supervisors are under.
He acknowledged that the department seeks to give the social workers 38 cases, with no more than 47, but that one in four social workers are far above that union-negotiated "cap." Like most county agencies, the department's budget was cut this fiscal year.
Freedlund said that family services director Digre had, shortly after assuming the helm of the troubled department in 1991, begun enforcing certain "time-tested" safety procedures, including monthly visits to abused or neglected children. The procedures, he said, have been proved to cause the number of children's deaths to decline.
Freedlund said that while 99% of the department's 2,500 social workers and their supervisors follow those procedures, Digre would not tolerate workers who failed to follow the guidelines.
One of Digre's changes was the creation of a Risk Management Division, which among other things investigates the performance of social workers accused of poor performance.
Social workers at the rally called it "a goon squad" and said it is used to intimidate them.
In the case of 18-month-old Destiny, who was returned to her parents a year after being taken from them at birth, both the social worker, Trisha Higa, and her supervisor, Henry Barbosa, were fired.
Family services officials said Higa failed to actually see the child during visits to the home. She only talked to the parents and other family members, officials said.
Visual contact is not only required of the social workers, it is critical to detecting signs of abuse, Freedlund said.
Destiny's parents, Patricia Inez Vildosola and William Jacobo Jr. of Monterey Park, are in jail facing murder and child abuse charges.
Despite the complaints of union members, many in the child welfare community cheered the firings.
"Peter Digre is finally starting to exercise accountability, and the threat that if you don't do your job, you will lose your job," said Hal Brown, chairman of the Los Angeles County Children's Commission, a group of citizens appointed by the Board of Supervisors to monitor the agency.
Brown says he watched Digre fire two other workers three months ago; the workers, he said had "engaged in a definite cover-up" in a case involving another child's death.
Carole Shauffer, director of the Youth Law Center, which has filed lawsuits against the department in the past, said children's deaths in Los Angeles have dropped because of Digre's added procedures.
"Kids weren't being visited five years ago. They didn't have the body checks before. They didn't do criminal histories on everyone who lives in the child's home," she said.
But caseworkers, who say they must follow the lives of as many as 70 families at a time, call the criticism insulting.
"We're the ones who have the bad dreams when our kids die, not them!" Patricia Cegarra shouted to the crowd of social workers outside family services headquarters as she pointed to the windows of the executive offices. Cegarra, a caseworker supervisor, was suspended for 30 days last year after one of her caseworkers was fired following the death of a child.
Robert Logan, who became a social worker three years ago after finishing graduate school at UCLA, said the rebukes from management are especially painful to idealistic young workers.
"We did this because we wanted to make a difference," he said. "We did it because we want to protect children. Nobody does this for the money."
Logan said that the department focuses more on cracking down on social workers than hiring new ones. More staffers would result in lower caseloads and solve many of the problems, he said.
Freedlund said that the department has recently hired significant numbers of new social workers, including 259 now being trained, causing caseloads to drop in the last few years.
Logan, who said he handles 53 cases--which he said is fewer than many others in his office--said the harsh working conditions discourage many from continuing as social workers. Of the 20 social workers in his 1993 training class, Logan said, he knows of five who have already quit. He plans to apply to law school next year.
Times staff writer Abigail Goldman contributed to this story.