Couple raising concerns about summer camp safety after their 6-year-old son drowned (2024)

By Susan El Khoury and Jordan Gartner

Published: May. 23, 2024 at 7:30 PM PDT|Updated: 23 hours ago

ST. LOUIS (KMOV/Gray News) - As summer vacation approaches, parents Olga and Travone Mister are raising concerns about camp safety.

The couple’s 6-year-old son TJ drowned while at a camp that was run by St. Louis County in 2022.

The couple is advocating for stricter regulations, claiming current measures fall short and may put other children at risk.

The KMOV investigative team reports they have been following the case for years and uncovering what the Mister family says is a gap in safety.

TJ drowned in July 2022 at an unlicensed county-run summer camp. Missouri does not regulate camps, meaning they are not licensed as other childcare facilities such as day cares.

The way things stand, there is no requirement for camps to run background checks on employees or have staff with medical training.

“I didn’t know what questions to ask,” Olga Mister said. “I just assumed that TJ was safe.”

The Misters said they are pushing for statewide camp licensing and thought St. Louis County would lead the way by passing a camp safety ordinance that would apply to camps run in the county.

However, the couple says their pleas for a countywide ordinance have been ignored, and the county passed a limited ordinance that sets rules for the camps run by the county.

Currently, there are four camps run by St. Louis County.

“The most important thing is to do it right, not to do it fast, and I think the county just did it fast,” Olga Mister said.

The county’s ordinance targets multiple things that happened the day TJ died, including making swim tests, lifeguard requirements, and first aid training. However, these changes do not impact the majority of camps in the area.

In the years since TJ’s death, there were multiple things exposed that the Mister family claims were missteps the county made.

TJ drowned while attending a camp at the Kennedy Recreation Center. On the day TJ died, the pool had only one lifeguard for more than 40 children, despite county policy requiring two lifeguards.

Surveillance footage showed TJ struggling for nearly five minutes before a camp counselor pulled him out of the water.

Police records showed two children had told officers they tried to get help and told a head counselor that TJ was struggling in the pool.

According to police, both children say they were ignored.

Once TJ was out of the water, staff performed CPR but never used a potentially lifesaving AED, despite having one.

The 911 call was sent to a Colorado call center because the county’s internet-based phone wasn’t set up properly.

Emails sent months before TJ’s death show parks department staff discussing lifeguard shortages and questioned if it would be safe to open the Kennedy Center pool.

After TJ’s death, Councilman Ernie Trakas introduced the camp safety ordinance.

“We started with the ones we can control and then with an eye to looking at a broader view,” said Councilman Dennis Hanco*ck. “I think we need to look at what we can do to make sure we’re keeping our kids as safe as we can do it.”

Other council members questioned if the county could do more.

“We’re pretty limited on what we can do based on our jurisdiction,” said Councilwoman Lisa Clancy.

“If you’re in Brentwood or Clayton then those governmental bodies enact those ordinances,” said Councilwoman Rita Heard Days.

Doug Forbes has spent almost five years pushing for camp safety regulations, ever since his 6-year-old daughter Roxie daughter drowned at a Los Angeles-area camp.

“There’s no price that you can put on a 6-year-old child’s life. No price,” Forbes said. “If this can happen to our child, it can happen to any child.”

Forbes successfully lobbied for broad sweeping camp and swim safety measures in Los Angeles County. The change requires camps there to be licensed and parents can now go online and see inspection reports.

“If we can do this in the most populous county in the most populous state in America, meaning enact meaningful, logical camp safety laws, then we can do it here in certainly St. Louis County,” Forbes said.

Forbes thought what he did could be a blueprint for St. Louis County, he presented it to council members and wanted to know why they chose a different direction.

“I wrote countless emails, I made phone calls,” Forbes said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take for St. Louis County to wake up and say this is our precious cargo and we can protect them inexpensively and immediately.”

When asked if he’d like to see an ordinance similar to what was passed in Los Angeles County, Councilman Dennis Hanco*ck responded, “I think right now everything is on the table. It should be.”

When asked if Los Angeles is doing it why can’t St. Louis County do it, Councilwoman Lisa Clancy answered, “We’re a different county in a different state with a different set of rules.”

For the Mister family, timing is everything. The county council passed its limited ordinance the day after TJ would have turned 8 years old.

“I feel like the day after TJ’s birthday was a little planned,” Olga Mister said.

The family continues to advocate for camp regulations, emphasizing the need for parents to be informed.

“Ask how many staff are CPR certified, do they have an emergency action plan, and how many lifeguards will be present,” Olga Mister said,

Last year, St. Louis County paid the Misters an $8 million settlement after the family sued for TJ’s wrongful death.

A proposed state law known as TJ’s Law would have established camp licensing across Missouri but failed to gain traction this legislative session.

The Misters said they hope it will be reintroduced in the next session.

“We don’t give up,” Olga Mister said. “We’re going to continue to fight, and we’re not going to go away.”

Copyright 2024 KMOV via Gray Media Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Couple raising concerns about summer camp safety after their 6-year-old son drowned (2024)
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