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Parents find many camps are unregulated after 6-year-old drowns in St. Louis County

T.J. Mister, 6, drowned at the Kennedy Recreation Center in St. Louis County that lacked enough lifeguards.

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — TJ Mister’s words are immortalized on a bench in his honor outside Bayless Elementary School.

“We do not give up even if we're sad. We do not give up. Never.”

They’ve taken on new meaning for his parents, Olga and Trey Mister, since the 6-year-old drowned at the Kennedy Recreation Center on July 20.

“This is really important for us right now because we're really sad and obviously we're not giving up,” Olga Mister said, as she and her husband huddled together on the memorial bench to talk about their quest to prevent children from dying or being seriously injured at camps.

So far, through records requests, the Misters say St. Louis County leaders failed on multiple levels to keep their son safe that day, including a lack of lifeguards, a 911 call center glitch and an email from a councilman demanding the pool open for the season despite warnings that there weren’t enough lifeguards.

That councilman, Ernie Trakas, is now calling for change.

The Misters also filed a lawsuit against the county, seeking $40 million in damages, and are collecting signatures to get a law passed to regulate camps like the one where their son drowned.

“We obviously need to change the law to prevent this from happening again,” Olga Mister said. “In order to do that, we have to have signatures.

“They have to know that it's important to other people, not just us.”

A spokesperson for St. Louis County Executive Sam Page told the I-Team in a statement that the 911 call center glitch has been fixed, and stated the county would not comment further due to the pending litigation.

Another parent halfway across the country who knows exactly how the Misters feel has been guiding their way.

“In 2019, I dropped my 6-year-old daughter Roxy, off at a summer camp in Los Angeles, and 45 minutes later, I was standing over her dead body in a trauma room,” said Doug Forbes, founder of the Meow Meow Foundation, which advocates for regulations on camps for kids.

Forbes learned through records requests that the lifeguards who were supposed to keep his daughter safe lacked training.

The more he researched, the more he discovered camps for kids are almost entirely unregulated.

“Childcare centers have to be licensed, so why not camps?” he asked.

Now, Forbes spends his time hunting down records for other grieving parents like the Misters to bring attention to the issue.

Among his findings in St. Louis County, a report from Starguard Elite – a company St. Louis County hired to conduct an audit following TJ’s drowning.

The I-Team also obtained the audit through a records request.

It found:

  • There were 40 camp children ranging from 5 to 12 years old
  • Four counselors and one camp director were present
  • Two lifeguards were scheduled to work, one called in right before letting kids onto pool deck. “A decision was made to open the pool without the additional lifeguard,” according to the audit.
  • Emergency Action Plan states, “facility must have two lifeguards to open”
  • EMS worked on TJ for 20 minutes before taking him to hospital
  • The original 911 call went to a dispatch center in Colorado
  • Colorado transferred the call to St. Louis and the call went to voicemail
  • Colorado rerouted the call to St. Louis County
  • A maintenance staff member returns with an Automated External Defibrillator, the AED prompts adult pads, staff discards AED to continue CPR, someone leaves airway position to look through AED case for child pads.

The audit also outlined the following timeline:

  • 1:05 p.m. Children arrived and started lining up on the poolside
  • 1:12 p.m. The lifeguard went on the stand in center of pool
  • 1:14 p.m. Kids enter the pool
  • 1:15 p.m. TJ is in the water, based on CCTV footage, it appears water is over his head. Appears to struggle bobbing up and down.
  • 1:16 to 1:18:40 p.m. TJ makes several attempts to lift his head above the water. After each attempt TJ is underwater for varying lengths each time.
  • 1:18:40 p.m. TJ makes last attempt to get head above water
  • 1:19:18 p.m. Camp counselor pulls TJ above water’s surface and brings him to side of pool

Before the pool even opened for the season, there were concerns.

Forbes also found emails from the Parks and Recreation staff telling Councilman Ernie Trakas that the pool, which was in his district, would not open because there weren’t enough lifeguards.

The I-Team has also obtained those emails.

On June 1, then Assistant Director at St. Louis County Dept. of Parks and Recreation Tom Ott wrote: “We only have four lifeguards to work at the Kennedy pool – that has not changed…All of our pools need some lifeguards, they all have some vacancies, but enough to open. I will keep you posted if anything changes.”

Trakas responded that same day:

“I understand the challenge you are facing. I appreciate and expect that aggressive efforts to hire lifeguards will continue. That said, none of the other swimming pools operated by the County Parks Department are closed due to the inability to hire lifeguards?

“It is becoming increasingly clear to me that Kennedy is not viewed as important as the other facilities operated by County Parks. Indeed, more than once you have referenced, complained and dismissed pool at Kennedy as too old and unworthy of operation.

“Let me make myself perfectly clear. I expect the Kennedy pool to be open by the end of June, at the latest. I don’t care if that means you have to offer higher compensation, better hours or other incentives to retain the necessary personnel.”

Forbes sent a copy of Trakas’ email along with the others from staff expressing concerns to all of the council members.

Councilwoman Lisa Clancy responded: “I am very disturbed by what you’ve shared. I spoke to our County Counselor about this matter over the summer. At that point it appeared facts were still being collected. My question at this time is— why was that pool allowed to open?

I can’t imagine what this family has gone through with losing their sweet boy, a child not much younger than my own son. My deepest condolences to them.”

Clancy declined to comment.

Trakas did respond.

In a statement to the I-Team, Trakas said he wasn’t part of the decision to open the Kennedy pool the day T.J. drowned, and that he is now calling for a policy that would ban all county pools from opening if they don’t have the necessary staff.

“Safety must be the top priority at County pools. Therefore, I am calling on the Department of Parks and Recreation to adopt a policy that no County pool can be opened until all County pools have the necessary staff to be safe. You had asked about the Kennedy Center tragedy. As a member of the County Council, my role is to advocate for South County to receive its fair share of County resources and to demand that the County services we receive are safe. My constituents wanted that pool to be open — I agreed with them, but I also wanted to make sure the pool had the staffing necessary to be safe for the public. In an email, I asked the Parks Department to hire all ‘necessary personnel’ so the pool could be opened safely. I have since read in the media that the necessary personnel were not hired for private-enrollment summer camp programs. I was not involved with that decision. I continue to pray for the family of Travone Mister. I hope others will join me in prayer for them.”

The Misters want more than that.

They want to get a law like the one Forbes got passed in L.A. County that would require:

  • All camps to get licensed just like childcare centers do.
  • Mandated reporter training and status for all counselors
  • Mandated CPR training for all counselors
  • Emergency action plans for active shooters, natural disasters, drownings and other emergencies
  • Public reporting systems so parents can research prior incidents

Forbes said some states have some regulations in place for camps.

In New York, a father whose child drowned at a summer camp led to his state establishing a camp safety council, he said.

In Texas and New Hampshire there are also camp safety councils.

But the Department of Health and Social Services typically runs camp safety programs in states that have them, which are typically understaffed or underfunded to properly inspect camps, Forbes said.

“Roughly 35 states have some semblance of a camp safety law -- none of which are adequate and most of which address building codes, food safety and fire safety measures, but don’t address programming, certifications for high risk activities, health supervision, child abuse prevention and that is a huge problem," Forbes said. "Most states also offer exemptions largely pointed to religiously affiliated camps for no good reason whatsoever.”

The Misters are optimistic they have the attention of Missouri lawmakers.

And they say, they’re never giving up.

Just like T.J. said.

A Change.org petition has been started calling for regulations for children's camps.

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