"My daughter never even got to visit Disneyland"
Mexican tourist claims child abuse accusation unjust
ANAHEIM – It was supposed to be a reward for good grades and probably one of the last childhood mother-daughter trips they would take.
Mexico City natives Ericka Pérez-Campos and her 11-year-old daughter, Debbie, were ecstatic about spending Christmas at Disneyland together. They stayed at the Hilton in Anaheim after a long flight. They dined at Tony Roma's with a family friend on Christmas Eve.
They never made it to Disneyland.
Instead, the two spent Christmas Day separated – Debbie at Orangewood Children's Home and her mother in jail, arrested on suspicion of child abuse.
"We had never had anything like this happen to me before," Pérez-Campos said after pleading guilty to battery and being sentenced to one day in jail last week. "This was the most horrible experience of our lives."
Anaheim police officials allege that Pérez-Campos and Debbie got into an argument before the mother hit her daughter with a closed fist, leaving a 1/2- to 1-inch scar, according to court documents.
They said the injury was intentional and that Debbie's statement on the night of the incident corroborates what officers believe, the documents said.
"Based on information, statements and evidence discovered during this initial investigation, officers believed that a crime – willful cruelty on a child – did in fact take place," Anaheim police Sgt. Rick Martinez said in a written statement.
Pérez-Campos spoke out about the incident at the Mexican consulate's office in Santa Ana on a recent afternoon, stating that she was unjustly prosecuted and forced to plead guilty to battery so she could reunite with her daughter and move on with her life in Mexico City. Prosecutors dropped three other related charges.
A law school student in Mexico City, Pérez-Campos said she did scratch Debbie's face with her diamond ring, but claims she did it accidentally as she struggled to zip up a jacket on her reluctant daughter near a restaurant just outside of Disneyland.
The victim of a facial scar herself, she said she panicked when she saw the bloody nick on her daughter's face, stating that the injury was blown out of proportion after she asked passersby for help.
Debbie, who spoke from her godmother's home in Mexico City, denied making the statement to police. She said officers misinterpreted what she had said.
"I told them it was an accident," she said.
Mexican consulate officials helped repatriate Debbie and personally flew her to Mexico City to stay with her godmother while Pérez-Campos navigated the court system here.
Consul spokesman Agustin Pradillo Cuevas called it an isolated incident, a worst-case scenario of what can happen to traveling tourists who may not be familiar with the language, culture and protocols during interactions with law enforcement here.
Pérez-Campos said cultural barriers and a misunderstanding are to blame for the events that unfolded.
"I think they were confused with the sort of person they were dealing with," she said. "I came here as a Mexican citizen traveling on a tourist visa. This was not my first vacation in the United States. They thought otherwise, that's why they treated me so poorly. They thought I'd keep quiet."
On Christmas Eve, Pérez-Campos, her daughter and a family friend had just finished eating dinner at Tony Roma's on Harbor Boulevard near Disney Way when the friend left to buy some cough syrup for Debbie, who was nursing a sore throat and beginning to feel worse, her mother said.
As the pair waited for their friend, Pérez-Campos insisted her daughter put on her jacket to avoid becoming even more sick, she said. Debbie didn't want to wear the jacket but her mother said she put it on her anyway and claims she accidentally scratched her daughter's face with her ring as she juggled a purse and a stubborn zipper.
"I saw the blood and I asked for help and that's when the paramedics arrived," Pérez-Campos said. "But I didn't understand them."
Paramedics called a Spanish-speaking officer because they thought the injury may have been intentional, Martinez said in a written statement.
"But the interpreter they called couldn't speak Spanish," Pérez-Campos said. "He couldn't understand what I was saying."
Pérez-Campos said she was mistreated by authorities who she said could not understand Spanish and couldn't explain to her what was happening as they separated her from Debbie, who was soon placed under the county's custody.
Anaheim police officials contend that they did not mistreat Pérez-Campos. They said they provided her with a certified Spanish-to-English translator who determined that the woman had hit her daughter with a closed fist, according to court documents.
"The officer has many years of experience as a police officer for Anaheim and another police agency in Los Angeles County," Martinez said. "He has spoken Spanish in the performance of his job for both agencies."
Pérez-Campos was initially charged on suspicion of corporal punishment to a child, battery, trying to dissuade a victim and resisting arrest. All the charges, except for battery, were later dropped and she was sentenced to one day in jail.
As the officer attempted to conduct interviews, Martinez reported that Pérez-Campos was yelling at the police officer.
"She refused to allow the officer to speak to the victim and she attempted to leave the scene with the victim," Martinez said in the statement. "The officer ultimately had to handcuff the woman to control her, but she continued struggling with the officer as she yelled profanities at police."
Pérez-Campos, who said she speaks little English, said she was confused and became panicked and upset when she saw two men walk away with her daughter.
"You have to understand. I'm in a different country and alone. I'm here as a tourist and don't understand what the man is saying and suddenly they walk away with my daughter," she said.
"I didn't see the men as officials. At that moment I didn't see police figures. I saw it as two men walking away with my young daughter, alone. I never leave my daughter alone with male adults, not even with men I know in Mexico."
Pérez-Campos said she told her daughter in Spanish: "'Don't get too near them. Be careful.' And that's what they interpret as dissuading a witness?" she said.
She said she pleaded guilty to battery because she couldn't afford to stay in the country for a drawn-out trial, especially after paying thousands of dollars in bail and court fees.
"How would I support myself? I would never work here illegally," Pérez-Campos said. "I just wanted to return to my daughter and finish my last year of law school in Mexico."
A tearful Pérez-Campos said she may have lost her daughter indefinitely if it weren't for the help of the Mexican consul in Santa Ana.
Officials there served as a liaison and were able to strike a deal with the judge and social services to have Debbie taken out of Orangewood after Pérez-Campos gathered multitudes of letters from colleagues, friends and others stating that she was a good mother, she said. She disclosed bank and investment statements proving she could provide for her daughter.
"I even had to get a testimonial from my daughter's nanny in Mexico and pictures of my home in Mexico," she said.
Initially, county officials wanted Pérez-Campos to complete a child abuser's treatment program in the U.S., but consulate officials persuaded the judge and county officials to allow her to take a similar program in Mexico.
Pérez-Campos said her trip to Anaheim cost her more than she ever thought it would. Aside from the thousands for court fees, bail and future therapy for herself and her daughter, she said her daughter's innocence has since vanished.
"The officials who thought they'd done my daughter a favor, really did her a disfavor," she said. "They hurt her emotionally and psychologically… She was forced to spend Christmas without her mother… She never even got to visit Disneyland."