Foster mother finds renewed strength after toddler’s murder
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ In her darkest moments, alone and crying after the funeral for a toddler named Destiny, Joanne Garza thought she could never be a foster parent again.
She and her husband, Danny, had raised Destiny from a cocaine-addicted newborn to a happy, healthy toddler. They reluctantly returned her to her natural parents, only to get horrifying news four months later.
The 18-month-old girl had been killed through violent shaking, allegedly by her parents.
``I remember crying and thinking I couldn’t possibly go through something like this again,″ said Mrs. Garza, 42, of Covina, who over the years has raised more than 40 foster children.
But after a tearful jury convicted Destiny’s parents of second-degree murder and child abuse charges Tuesday, Mrs. Garza was more determined than ever to help foster children.
``I’m not going to let evil win,″ she said Wednesday.
Patricia Inez Vildosola, 40, and William Jacobo Jr., 28, both of Monterey Park, face 15 years to life in prison at their sentencing Sept. 9.
Destiny’s death led to the firing of the Department of Children and Family Services social worker and supervisor on the case and contributed to a shakeup in department procedures.
It also highlights a national problem. While the murder rate for victims of all ages decreased 12 percent from 1980 to 1994, the Justice Department said the homicide rate of children ages 12 and under rose 6 percent.
Victims 4 and under accounted for 72 percent of the children killed. In nearly all cases a family member was the killer and the most common weapon was bare hands.
``Hopefully these prosecutions send a message to parents who do beat their kids that they’re going to be discovered and prosecuted,″ said Deputy District Attorney Cheri Lewis, who prosecuted Destiny’s parents.
Vildosola’s attorney didn’t return a phone message Wednesday and Jacobo’s lawyer had left for vacation and could not be reached.
The lawyers centered their defense on a lack of eyewitnesses and a dispute over the coroner’s finding that Destiny was shaken to death. The defense contended she died of pneumonia, Lewis said.
Destiny’s mother testified she snorted cocaine during her pregnancy, but denied she killed her child.
The prosecution offered a circumstantial case that pointed to signs of other abuse, including bruises, and was allowed to show that another one of Vildosola’s children died in 1991 of undetermined causes.
Lewis argued Vildosola took custody of Destiny only as part of a ``package deal″ to get back her three other children, who were placed in foster care after the first baby died.
``She didn’t care about her, and when the baby didn’t bond with her, she took out whatever her frustrations were on the baby,″ Lewis said.
Destiny weighed only 5 pounds, 2 ounces when she was born on May 29, 1994. She was suffering cocaine withdrawal from an addiction developed in the womb.
When she was 2 days old, she was given to the Garzas, a churchgoing couple who say foster parenting is their mission.
``She was so tiny and we were so excited to have her,″ Mrs. Garza recalled. ``She was the first newborn that we cared for.″
In the first six weeks, Destiny suffered tremors from withdrawal. The Garzas, along with their own two daughters, wrapped the child tightly in receiving blankets to calm her.
``Between all of us we just got her through it by holding her, holding her kind of snugly, and she would feel secure,″ she said.
By 15 months, Destiny was a ``perfectly healthy baby,″ Mrs. Garza said. The child was running and called the Garzas ``mama and papa.″
In July 1995, the county decided Destiny’s parents were fit and the Garzas gave her back.
``I know that the whole mission of the Department of Children’s Service is family reunification, but the only time it’s tough is when you feel the parents don’t really love their baby,″ Mrs. Garza said.
Mrs. Garza never saw Destiny again. They spoke once by phone _ ``She sounded so excited″ _ but every other time, Destiny’s parents had a different reason why the Garzas couldn’t see or talk to her.
On Dec. 5, 1995, a detective left a message on Mrs. Garza’s answering machine. Her spirits soared. She felt she was about to get the baby back.
When she called back, she was told Destiny had been killed.
When the verdict was read, Vildosola, Mrs. Garza and jurors sobbed.
``If she didn’t want her,″ asked Mrs. Garza, ``why did she take her?″