Vanessa Rico turned on the water and put her two small children into the bathtub. Then she walked out of the bathroom, pulling the door shut behind her, past two adults in another room and out the front door without saying a word.
The tub filled and Rico's 10-month-old daughter, Valeria Romero, drowned while her mother chatted in the parking lot with a friend.
That's what police say happened Wednesday night at a West Phoenix Apartment, and they say it amounts to one of the most egregious cases of negligence they're ever seen.
"It would be equivalent to taking this 10-month-old outside, setting her on the steps of the swimming pool and leaving her there while you go inside to powder your nose," Phoenix police Detective Tony Morales said Thursday. "You just don't do that."
Rico, 21, was arrested Wednesday night and booked for negligent homicide. She was the first Valley parent to face prosecution in the accidental drowning of a child, but 24 hours later the scenario was repeated when Peoria police booked Janis Ann Perry, 20, for the drowning death of her daughter.
Kataryna Bell, described as a 19-month-old with Down syndrome, reportedly was left unattended in the bathtub of her mother's apartment.
No other details of Perry's arrest were available, but officials on Thursday had plenty to say about Rico's arrest.
We basically feel she was grossly negligent and allowed her child to drown," Morales said of the Rico case.
"This is discrimination,"countered Martin Garcia, Rico's stepfather. "I know a lot of kids drown because parents leave them They never get arrested."
So why were these mothers arrested when parents of other drowned children haven't been? And just where do police and prosecutors draw the line between a tragic accident and criminal negligence?
Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley said Thursday that each drowning case has to be evaluated on its own merits.
"We understand that parents make mistakes. No question at all," Romley said. "There has to be some aggravating factor. You consciously put the child in danger.."
No decision has been made to formally charge either woman.
"The negligence has to be significant," Romley said. "It has to be more than just having made a mistake. They have to be aware that it could cause serious injury or death."
Rico was released Thursday after the Mesa-based National Civil Rights Movement posted her $10,600 bail.
"It was an accident," said Ramon Gomez, the group's CEO. "It wasn't malice."
Rico said Thursday that she left her children in the tub while she went to get a towel. The drain wasn't plugged, and she believes her 2-year-old son stepped on it to fill the tub. She denied ever leaving the apartment.
Witnesses, however, said Rico walked past two adults in the house without saying anything, got a soda and went outside to talk to a male friend for as long as five minutes.
Rico was arrested seven hours later at the hospital.
"They didn't respect my pain," she said in Spanish. "It hurts to lose a child. I will always have that pain," she said in Spanish. "It hurts to lose a child. I will always have that pain."
Twelve children have drowned in Phoenix this year, the highest number of deaths since 1991, and two have drowned in Peoria. Through Aug. 31 this year, 24 children had drown Valley-wide. None of the other parents was arrested.
"This incident is so different from all the others," Phoenix police Sgt. Jeff Halstead said. "In most of the drownings we see, it was the child who snuck out and drowned. When the adult left them, they were on the jungle gym. It wasn't that mom intentionally left them in a body of water. In this case she did."
Valley parents have rarely been held criminally accountable for the accidental death of their children. Two years ago, a Phoenix woman was sentenced to seven years' probation for child abuse after she left her two toddlers locked in her truck while she played slots at a casino; the children lived. But other parents have escaped prosecution after children were forgotten in sweltering cars, left unsupervised in swimming pools or fell into buckets of water.
"It gets into this whole thing of where do you draw this line?" said Steven Pitt, a local forensic psychiatrist. "We hear about people who leave their children in a car when it's 113 out, and everyone is outraged. That on one level is seemingly so illogical and so not in keeping with how you'd treat children, and absolutely they should be charged. And then you have a situation where mom's with a child, steps away for a moment and the child drowns. That resonates with people. People can relate to that."
But will prosecuting a parent ultimately make any dent in the Valley's record number of child drownings?
"I don't think it's an answer," said Forest Richardson, of Phoenix Fire Pals. "People put up a block wall. People tune out things that are so bad and so horrible or don't apply to them. And most people genuinely don't believe this will happen to them."
Reproduced with permission from:
The Arizona Republic
BYLINE: By Judi Villa and Carlos Miller, The Arizona Republic
©Copyright 2000 Arizona Republic
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