A 9-month-old boy, found unconscious by nurses visiting a migrant labor camp on the Eastern Shore, died Tuesday after reportedly suffering four days from dehydration and diarrhea.
The baby, Salvador Videla, was rushed to Peninsula General Hospital in Salisbury from the Westover Labor Camp, which is owned by Maryland Del. R.C. Biggy Long and has been criticized frequently by migrant reform groups.
Hospital officials confirmed the death yesterday but refused to release other details until a death certificate had been signed. A hospital vice president, Virginia Layfield, said an autopsy was being arranged.
Edwin Long, the president of the Somerset County Growers' Association, which operates Westover, and a brother of Del. Biggy Long, refused to comment and referred all questions to the local health department.
The death occurred one day after Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs issued an opinion stating that farm owners and fruit growers cannot prevent guests, such as medical personnel, lawyers, ministers and journalists, from visiting migrant workers on farm property.
The assocation expelled nurses last year from a makeshift screening clinic on the farm and since then has allowed only two nurses to visit workers one evening each week. Church groups also have been denied free access to the migrants.
Just last week, however, the owners agreed to allow more frequent (although still limited) visits, and health workers from the Delmarva Rural Ministry embarked on a long process of registering between 700 and 1,000 laborers who had arrived recently for the two-month tomato harvest.
The Videla baby, whose family is said to have come from Mexico and Florida, was not registered yet by health officials or by the local Head Start organization. When he became sick last week, knowledgeable sources said, his mother was not immediately aware of the seriousness of his condition.
On Monday night he developed a high fever and diarrhea, according to those sources, and his parents found someone to drive them to the emergency room at the hospital in Salisbury and serve as a translator. A prescription was written but never filled, the sources said.
Spanish-speaking workers at the camp offered a slightly different report yesterday, saying that a prescription was filled out for Tylenol and Ampicillin, a drug commonly used to treat infectious dysentery. Laborers who knew the Videla family and had seen the baby said they could not understand why he had been sent back to the camp that night instead being admitted to the hospital. They said he appeared to be suffering from severe dysentery.
The next morning, nurses who arrived at the camp to take laborers to a nearby clinic for medical checkups found the baby unconscious and near death. They tried to resuscitate him and then rushed him to the hospital. He died at 10:45 a.m., reportedly of heart failure caused by dehydration.
The baby's mother sent a message in Spanish to a reporter who went to the camp yesterday saying that she could not talk without permission from her husband--as is traditional in Mexico--who was busy trying to raise money so that the boy's body could be flown home. She said she thought her son had died of dysentery.
Edwin Long said yesterday that he had only read about the Sachs' opinion in the newspaper and that he had received no official notice requiring him to allow journalists and other guests on the property.
Two reporters from The Washington Post were refused entry yesterday.
"I don't see any need for more medical people in here," Long said. "We've got five or six nurses now and several translators. We're not the scoundrels that the press makes us out to be. We're honest, fair people."
"Listen real good and get this straight," he said. "If we get an official notice from Mr. Sachs, then we might let them reporters in. I don't know why the Westover camp has to be picked on when there are ones a damn site worse. It's because it is too damn near Washington."
Marlene Kingatti, a member of the governor's Commission Migratory and Seasonal Farm Labor, said the prohibition against nurses visiting workers prior to the Sachs' opinion may have been partly to blame for the boy's death.
"This year the nurses had limited access to the Westover camp and they had not gotten to all of the children," Kingatt said. "If this child had been screened, and enough nurses were involved, we think this kind of thing might have been avoided." Kingatti and several others said they could not remember a child dying under similar circumstances in any of the work camps.
The Sachs opinion gives free access and allows nurses and other guests to meet privately with migrant laborers, rather than in the presence of the camp manager, as had been customary before.
According to health workers, the Westover camp has had the most rigid prohibitions against visitors of any camp on the Eastern Shore. It was used in World War II as a holding pen for German prisoners, and had undergone little renovation until this spring.
The governor's commission issued a damaging report on Westover two years ago, alleging inadequate living conditions for the migrant workers. Last May, the Washington law firm of Arnold and Porter, working jointly with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the law, wrote a letter to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that said health regulations were ignored at the camp and that it should be closed unless drastic improvements were made.
Most migrants had been living in squalid conditions, often crowded into small rooms with few sanitary facilities. Visitors reported seeing clogged latrines, stagnant pools of water, dank mattresses, and gang showers, and there were reports of widespread disease.
In response to pressure from the state, the growers agreed to refurbish the camp. Long said yesterday that his group spent $250,000 this year to build two deep wells, four new insulated latrines, a waste disposal system, and a new electrical system. Recent visitors said that nine of the camp's 22 barracks also have been renovated, and that landscaping was done to prevent water from standing.
Frank DeStefano, a legislative aide on Capitol Hill who works for Rep. Henry Gonzales (D-Tex.), visited the camp last week and confirmed that there were major improvements, such as private latrines with good lighting, a new laundry facility and better showers. But he said serious problems persist.
"The stench in the latrine complex was such that you could almost not approach the building," he said. "Apparently they are not treating the waste properly, so fumes are coming up through the pits and are permeating the place.
As a result of the odors, DeStefano said, some workers apparently were reluctant to use the showers in the building and reportedly were defecating and urinating outside.