VAN NUYS — A woman who had been stripped of custody of her daughter allegedly killed the toddler after a judge ordered the two reunited, authorities said Friday.
Maria Sabina Barajas, 30, was arrested June 5 and remains in custody without bail, charged with murder and child endangerment "causing death," said police and prosecutors. A preliminary hearing is set for Oct. 22.
The little girl, Marisela Barajas, had earlier been placed in a foster home along with four siblings because there was evidence some of the siblings had been physically abused, said Victoria Pipkin, Los Angeles County Children's Services spokeswoman.
But last spring, Marisela was returned to the care of her mother for what was supposed to be a two-month visit, said Pipkin.
The court order was made by an unidentified judicial officer based on the recommendation of a child-welfare social worker, who cited "a glowing report" from the woman's family counselor.
The evening of June 4, 19-month-old Marisela was pronounced dead at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys. Los Angeles child abuse detectives called to the scene say she suffered multiple injuries, some of which were consistent with shaken-baby syndrome.
A Valley Presbyterian spokeswoman said the hospital has no record of the death, which may indicate that Marisela was already dead when she arrived there.
A fifth sibling, who apparently had not been removed from the Panorama City home before, was taken into protective custody by police and is now in the care of Children's Services, police said.
The baby's father, Antonio Barajas, has not been charged, police said.
County public defender Irene Nunez, Barajas' attorney in the murder case, declined to comment.
The case follows other high-profile murder cases of children who were returned to homes where there had been prior findings of abuse or neglect.
One of them, the notorious beating death of 2 1/2-year-old Lance Helms in North Hollywood, prompted California legislators to create new laws to protect children. One of the new provisions allows judges more latitude in terminating parental rights.
In the Barajas case, Pipkin said a children's services case worker had recommended Maria Barajas be allowed unmonitored visits with Marisela. She made that recommendation after receiving a report from a family counselor, who said the couple had completed counseling successfully and could provide a safe home.
"We received a professional report . . . that they had been responding to their counseling sessions," said Pipkin. "The professional said that she could provide a safe environment."
Citing confidentiality rules, Pipkin declined to give details of the case. But she said, "There were no allegations of abuse regarding Marisela," only of some of her siblings.
"It appears the social worker of this case did a very good job, and the [social worker's] court report was comprehensive to the extent that there is a notation that the court said it was a good report. We stand by the work of the social worker," Pipkin said.
She added: "When professionals write a glowing report saying the mother can provide a safe environment, what are we supposed to do?"
The other Barajas children remain in foster care.
Reunification of families is a priority in children's services. Courts typically terminate parental rights only in extreme cases and usually after a protracted hearing.
But controversy over unification has grown with cases of reported child abuse in the county skyrocketing and the number of cases Children's Services handles increasing rapidly.
Public outrage over highly publicized cases such as the Helms case and the 1995 killing of Elisa Izquierdo, who was murdered by her mother in New York, has put mounting pressure on protective service agencies, courts and lawmakers.
Changes meant to acknowledge the public's shift in attitude toward child abuse include a recently passed California statute that codifies the importance of safety when deciding whether to return children to an abusive home.
Late last year, a stinging critique by the Los Angeles County counsel's office put the focus on the courts, citing recent cases in which the courts had overruled social workers and sent children back to troubled families.
And most recently, county social workers went on strike briefly to protest long hours and mounting caseloads. Workers have said that with too many children to watch over, they sometimes don't have time to investigate cases thoroughly.