July 11, 2008 -- The surveillance video of a small child being sprayed with a high-pressure hose was showing over and over on Orlando, Fla., television newscasts. Once the grainy images hit the Internet, reaction poured in from around the globe. Who was the child? Was she in imminent danger? And who was the woman with the hose?
What you are able to make out in the video is a woman who with one hand is holding the child and with the other is pulling the trigger of a high-pressure hose. There is no sound, but witnesses say the child was crying loudly. Because of YouTube, it wasn't just people in Orlando who were concerned and outraged. People thousands of miles away were afraid for the child's safety, and they wanted answers.
"I was walking around the corner and then this gentleman said, you know, 'This little girl has just been screaming and screaming,'" said Marlene Diaz, the carwash manager on duty that day. She said she hears loud screams from children on a daily basis but that this was a different sound. "It was more high-pitched," she said. "It was one of those that you know that somebody needs help. It was one of those kinds of screams."
Suspect Turns Herself In
Diaz had not seen firsthand what actually happened, but the carwash surveillance cameras captured the entire incident on tape. "That's when I decided, I need to go and check the cameras," she said. "I actually checked the footage a few times just to make sure that what I saw the first time was truly it."
By the time Diaz went back outside to check out the incident for herself, the woman and child were gone. She immediately called local police, but was worried that they wouldn't be able to track down the child.
"I was frustrated, I was mad," Diaz said. "My biggest thing was, are you going to be able to check and make sure the child's ok?"
Police hoped once the tape was released to the media, someone would call with information. Luckily, the person who called in was the suspect, 22-year-old Nikki Ramirez, a single mom with a 2 -year-old daughter and pregnant with a son.
Ramirez knew authorities were looking for her, so she called a friend who was a police officer and made plans to turn herself in. She said being arrested was awful; she had never been in trouble before.
"When we got there, the whole media was there," she said. "They had to put handcuffs on me." She said that the worst part was leaving her 2-year-old child and, pregnant, spending the night in jail.
Ramirez says she would never harm her daughter and was paralyzed with fear when she saw herself on the tape. "I was in shock. I was in complete shock. Obviously I knew that was me because I could see myself and I could see her," she said. "But when they were saying she was harmed, that's when I panicked. I was worried they would take my daughter away."
'It Appears to be Worse Than It Is'
Ramirez and her lawyer, Circe Zamora, both said that the video looks worse than it actually is. "I saw the video before she came to the office, and I agree it appeared quite extreme," Zamora said. "But you see maybe 10 seconds of a child being watered down at a carwash. So certainly it appears to be worse than it is."
Police wanted to know what happened that day and why Ramirez took her daughter to the carwash. Ramirez said her daughter was having an uncontrollable temper tantrum and her friend, who was driving, decided to make a stop at a local carwash.
"She was screaming, and kicking. She wouldn't listen to me. I was trying to talk to her," Ramirez said. She explained that her daughter wanted to get out of her car seat, but Ramirez wouldn't allow that, which added fuel to the fire. "So I get her out and she's still screaming. I wet her down thinking that would just calm her down," she said. "I just wanted to interrupt her for a second."
Zamora said her client wasn't punishing her child. "The child was having a temper tantrum, and for that reason she thought that putting her child under the hose, under the water, would stop the child from screaming and crying."
But carwash manager Marlene Diaz disagrees. "Actually, we have one setting. You press it and that's it. There is no middle, there is no high, there is no low. As soon as you press it, the water comes out."
Abuse or Discipline?
Ramirez, who was born in Puerto Rico, moved to Florida as an 11-year-old. Her lawyer argues that cultures discipline their children in different ways. "In the Puerto Rican community it is well-accepted to spank children in public and in her view she's not hitting the child, so she is actually doing a good thing."
But according to Yale professor Dr. Alan Kazdin, president of the American Psychological Association, physical punishment of any kind can be emotionally damaging. What's more, it doesn't work. "It suppresses behavior just for that moment and it won't have any enduring effects that are positive," said Kazdin. "But it can have a lot of enduring effects that are negative."
Still, what parent hasn't had a moment they're not proud of? And while there was plenty of outrage and revulsion from viewers who saw the video, there were also parents who could sympathize.
"I see a mother who's very frustrated, obviously desperate like we all are," added Kazdin. "She tried to use what was right there before her to try to get some control of the situation and chose something that she would not otherwise do. She would not keep a hose in her living room and did it impulsively."
Ramirez has been charged with felony child abuse and could face five years in jail. Right now she has custody of her daughter and gets regular visits from social workers. She says court-ordered parenting classes are helping her find better ways of disciplining her daughter.
Ramirez says that it is hard to hear the negative comments about her since viewers only saw a brief snapshot of her at her worst moment. "I mean that's just, what, five seconds of me. Everyone makes mistakes. I made a mistake, that doesn't make me a bad parent."