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Infant’s death rekindles scrutiny of L.A. County child services agency

Five months before Diamond Hillman was born last July, her two half siblings were removed from their mother’s home.

Social workers found that she had spanked her 6-year-old daughter with a belt, scrubbed her face so hard it left welts and sent her to school in diapers.

Despite that finding, and a resulting court order that the 28-year-old mother have only monitored visits with the two older children, child welfare authorities deemed her fit to care for Diamond.

The child lived just four months. She died Nov. 22, allegedly at the hands of her stepfather, a convicted batterer with whom the mother had left the baby, according to court records and a confidential child-fatality report obtained by The Times.

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Her death comes amid growing public scrutiny of suspected abuse and neglect fatalities among children whose families at some point were under the supervision of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

There were 14 such deaths in 2008 and at least that many this year, though some remain under investigation, according to department officials and records recently made public under California law.

Diamond’s death is being investigated by the department, Santa Monica police and the L.A. County coroner’s office.

Many of those deaths occurred after children left the department’s watch -- to return to their families after a stint in foster care or to enter the criminal justice system, records show.

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But Diamond’s case calls the department’s vigilance into greater question, because she was still under its direct supervision when she was killed.

Donald Renald Hillman Jr., 33, a resident of Santa Monica and her mother’s estranged husband, has pleaded not guilty to murder and child abuse.

He is being held in lieu of $1-million bail.

The mother was not identified in the child-fatality report and has not been charged. She did not respond to a phone message left with a man at her last known address.

Shortly after Diamond’s birth, her mother told Hillman that he was not the girl’s father, “but he accepted Diamond as his child,” the report states. Although separated from Hillman, the mother left Diamond with him Oct. 4 while she met with a friend.

Hillman, who is 6 foot 1 and weighs 245 pounds, allegedly shook the infant so hard that day that she suffered retinal hemorrhaging and a traumatic brain injury.

When he brought her to a hospital emergency room in full cardiac arrest and not breathing, he told doctors the injuries were accidental.

“According to Diamond’s stepfather, Diamond was asleep in her bassinet when her two-year-old half-sibling ran into the room and somehow fell over the bassinet,” the report states.

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The attending physician said that explanation didn’t jibe with the baby’s injuries, which “appeared to be the result of being shaken,” the report notes.

Doctors twice resuscitated the infant and placed her on a ventilator, Santa Monica police said. She spent the next six weeks on life support, which was removed Nov. 22, police said.

An autopsy supported the shaken-baby diagnosis and Hillman was arrested Dec. 7 after he attended Diamond’s funeral, police said.

The cause of death has been deferred pending further investigation by the coroner’s office.

“As a result of the circumstances surrounding Diamond’s death, the Department will perform a comprehensive review and analysis of our prior involvement with Diamond and her family,” the report said in part.

Social workers are trained to give extra consideration to the cases of children who are age 2 and younger, because they are considered the most vulnerable and the least likely to be observed by people outside the home.

Trish Ploehn, who heads the child welfare agency, would not say if social workers had been disciplined for their handling of Diamond’s case, but noted that such action is taken when warranted. Social worker error was a factor in 10 of the 14 deaths in 2008 among children with prior involvement with her department, Ploehn said earlier this year.

She declined to comment on circumstances surrounding Diamond’s death, which she called “a tragedy for our entire county.”

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“The safety and the well-being of all children in Los Angeles County remains our highest priority,” Ploehn said in a statement.

One of the key issues under review, according to the internal report, is whether the department acted appropriately in keeping Diamond with her mother, who was still subject to monitored visitation with the older children, then 2 and 6.

Also under scrutiny is a decision by the department last February to place the 2-year-old with Hillman despite his criminal history, the report said. Hillman is the child’s biological father.

A search of Los Angeles County Superior Court records for Hillman turned up convictions for burglary, drug abuse and battery dating to 1998.

In 2005, he was charged with felony domestic violence but pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of battery, court records show.

A marijuana possession charge was dismissed.

The court file did not identify the battery victim, although the original felony charge was based on the alleged infliction of injury upon a “spouse, former spouse, cohabitant, former cohabitant, or the mother or father of his or her child.”

Hillman was sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years’ probation, and ordered to undergo domestic violence counseling, including anger management.

In 2006, he was kicked out of a “batterers treatment program” after missing four of six meetings, court records show.

The county report states that Diamond’s family had been the subject of six prior abuse and neglect complaints since 2004, when the oldest child, then 18 months old, was alleged to be hungry and living with her mother in a motel with no cooking facilities.

When a social worker could not find them, that allegation was deemed inconclusive .

Subsequent allegations of general neglect, sexual abuse and physical abuse in 2006, 2007 and 2008 involving the oldest child were all deemed inconclusive or unfounded, the report states.

In late January 2009, social workers substantiated allegations that the girl, then 6, had been physically and emotionally abused by her mother.

Besides striking her with a belt, the woman also had interfered with the girl’s relationship with her father, who was not Hillman, and had created “a detrimental environment” that caused her to act out aggressively.

The girl and her younger sibling were then taken from their mother and placed with their biological fathers.

When Diamond was born, the woman was “actively participating in court-ordered services and had nearly completed the required case plan activities,” the report noted.

So she was permitted to sign onto a “family maintenance plan” that allowed her to keep her new daughter at home, the report said.

“That agreement remained in place at the time that Diamond suffered the injuries that resulted in her death,” the report said.

kim.christensen@latimes.com

Times staff writer Garrett Therolf and researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.


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