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Death of 5-Year-Old Under Investigation

Times Staff Writers

Fullerton police and Orange County social services officials are investigating the death of a 5-year-old girl whose immigrant parents knew she was seriously ill with chicken pox but did not seek medical care because they had no money, didn’t speak English and didn’t know where to go.

An autopsy has ruled out any obvious trauma to the body of Sandra Navarrete, but toxicological tests to pinpoint the exact cause of death may take 6 to 12 weeks, Fullerton Police Sgt. Don Kimbro said.

If the tests show that Sandra died of complications from chicken pox, “now we’re in that gray area where someone has to determine whether a child can die of chicken pox in this day and age,” Kimbro said.

“If Mom and Dad did do what a reasonable person should do, it’s a tragic circumstance. The other side is if . . . the people just allowed this to happen, you’re looking at negligence,” he said.

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Florencia Navarrete, 33, a recent immigrant from Michoacan, Mexico, said Monday that she and her husband, Emilio, also 33, did not seek any medical help after their daughter became ill March 22 and steadily grew worse.

Since Sandra’s death March 28, Florencia Navarrete has received telephone numbers and addresses of clinics in her neighborhood that offer free medical help. “Now we have them, " Navarrete said, “but when she was sick, we didn’t have any.

“We didn’t know. I speak only Spanish and we didn’t know how to get one. I didn’t know how to speak English.”

Navarrete said she did not know about the 911 emergency telephone line. She also said she didn’t know she could go to any hospital and receive emergency medical care. And she said she didn’t look for a hospital or clinic because “we didn’t have enough money to get to a clinic. We knew there were many in Fullerton (but) we didn’t have any money.”

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Emilio Navarrete has supported his wife and four children with earnings of $740 a month from his job as a dishwasher at a Fullerton restaurant, Navarrete said. The family shares a two-bedroom, $625-a-month apartment with another woman and her 9-month-old child.

Sobbing as she recounted the events of last week, Florencia Navarrete said she knew that her daughter was very sick and that her temperature was high but that she did not have a thermometer in the apartment.

‘A Day-to-Day Thing’

“She was very, very hot, but sometimes it (the fever) would go down. It (the sickness) was a day-to-day thing. That’s how it was for us, day by day.”

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During her illness, Sandra cried often, Navarrete said. “She kept saying, ‘Mommy, Mommy,’ every time she would see me.” She was crying “Mommy” when she died in Navarrete’s brother’s car on the way to a hospital in Long Beach, Navarrete said.

By now, all the Navarrete children have contracted chicken pox. Eight-year-old Areli got a mild case of the disease in February, and Emilio, 7, and Carolina, 10 months, came down with the disease on the day Sandra died. All are well now, Navarrete said.

Medical experts described chicken pox as a highly communicable but generally mild childhood disease that rarely results in death. But county public health director L. Rex Ehling, a pediatrician, said that an occasional complication of chicken pox is encephalitis and that “it can cause death, obviously.”

Ehling said that he did not know what caused Sandra’s death but added that he has been advised that the Navarrete family had visited one of Orange County’s immunization clinics and that Florencia Navarrete had once visited a county family planning clinic. Dr. Gary Wagner, pediatrician in charge of the county’s immunization clinics, declined to provide a date or purpose for the family’s visit, citing confidentiality rules.

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In addition to the Fullerton police probe, Sgt. Kimbro said, the Orange County Social Services Agency is investigating the child’s death for negligence. Social Services officials declined to confirm whether such an investigation is under way.

‘A Very, Very Nice Family’

Some of those who knew the Navarretes described them as caring parents who simply did not understand how to get medical care for their child.

Said a spokesman from the Mexican Consulate in Santa Ana who helped the family after Sandra’s death: “I don’t think there’s any negligence or child abuse. It’s a matter of a different culture. It is a matter of a person who doesn’t speak the language, from a little town.”

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At Richman Elementary School, where Sandra attended kindergarten, Principal Maynard Duncan described the Navarretes as “a very, very nice family--concerned about the children.”

He noted that when a child was ill, Florencia Navarrete would come by the school to pick up homework.

She was “a very responsible mother” who also visited the school the day before her daughter died to inform a clerk that Sandra had chicken pox, Duncan said.

“That was just a normal thing . . . so we were not alarmed. We sent home chicken pox notices. ‘Your child has been exposed to chicken pox.’ We had no indication that the child was that ill,” Duncan said.

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He added that he did not think that the parents were negligent but rather uninformed about where to turn for help.

To remedy that for the Navarretes and other families uncertain where to turn, Duncan said the school would soon send out a list “of names and places where families can take children in cases of emergency,” as well as basic first- aid measures parents can take to lower a child’s fever.

The school of 720 students located in southwest Fullerton is 55% Latino, 18.5% Anglo and 13% Asian.

And like the Navarretes, “quite a few” of the students speak limited English and are new to the United States, Duncan said.

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