Sunday, April 10, 2005

Limbless baby, parents in homeless shelter

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

IMMOKALEE Tiny, limbless Carlitos is back home and yet not "home" at all.

The baby born Dec. 17 with no arms and legs was hospitalized for infection, successfully treated, then last week released only to wind up in a homeless shelter Friday evening.

"We went all around this town trying to find them other housing," said Jim Kean, a caseworker with Guadalupe Social Services in Immokalee, which has been helping Carlitos' parents, undocumented field workers who crossed from Mexico two years ago.

"We even resorted to taking the newspaper around with Carlitos' picture in it, trying to appeal to people's compassion and mercy," Kean said.

It didn't work.

"Either they said they couldn't take them because they were undocumented even though Carlitos isn't; he's a U.S. citizen because he was born here or they wanted a year's lease signed, and we couldn't do that.

"There are so many sad stories in Immokalee that it seems people have a jaundiced eye. There's no question there was a real lack of response."

Carlitos and his parents, Francisca Herrera and Abraham Candelario, had been living with several other family members in a cramped, rustic cabin, in a labor camp where crew leaders can handily collect their workers early in the morning for a long day in the tomato fields.

At the cabins, there are occasional reports of roaches and rats, and there is no air conditioning not much of a safe haven, doctors cautioned, for a boy as vulnerable as Carlitos. So the homeless shelter, on Main Street, became a desperate measure and a temporary one.

"Two weeks at the most," Kean said. "We really thank the Friendship House for taking them. They had to bend some rules. We're trying to line up something permanent in Florida City or Homestead."

Once alone in the United States, the baby's parents now have a handful of benefactors who want to help the boy.

For three weeks, he endured poking and prodding at Miami Children's Hospital; doctors had a hard time finding a place to draw blood to do their many tests. But everybody fell in love with Carlitos. High school students donated diapers, strangers walked into the hospital to leave fistfuls of cash, and a couple whose infant son shared a room with Carlitos set up appointments for his parents with immigration lawyers.

"It's a good day, because we get to take him home," Abraham Candelario said Wednesday. "It's hard to have him so far away at the hospital, because that is a 2 1/2 -hour drive if you are lucky with traffic."

His son, for now, remains a medical mystery. Doctors are still doing the genetic tests that might or might not provide clues as to why Carlitos was born with just stumps where his arms and legs should be.

Meanwhile, state agricultural investigators and Collier County health officials are looking into whether exposure to pesticides might have played a role.

Francisca Herrera labored in the fields for the first part of her pregnancy, and her husband still does.

"I would like to know," the mother said, "what happened to my son."