ST. LOUIS — Travon and Olga Mister thought they had a slam dunk as they walked the legislative hallways of the capitol building in Jefferson City late last year.
They were armed with a bill to make summer camps safer than the one where their 6-year-old son drowned in south St. Louis County.
So did the bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Michael Burton (D-92nd District).
“This is literally about protecting kids that are at summer camps,” Burton said.
“It’s common sense to me,” added Olga Mister.
But they didn’t.
The bill didn’t even make it out of the Children and Families Committee chaired by Rep. Hannah Kelly.
“We poured our hearts out to them, letting them know what happened to our son and how summer camps need to be regulated, and then the lobbyists came out and said, ‘Well, that's going to shut the camps down.’ Our goal is not to shut camps down. It’s to make camps safe for kids.”
The grieving parents plan to go through the motions all over again during the next legislative session. Until then, they’re continuing their mission to inform parents about the questions they never knew they needed to ask before their son went to camp that fateful day in July 2022.
The I-Team requested all the evidence police gathered in the investigation into T.J.’s drowning, including body camera footage, police reports, 911 audio and photos.
The Misters wanted the public to see some of the evidence to understand what went wrong the day their son died, and how it demonstrates the need to regulate an industry that currently operates unchecked in most states throughout the country – including Missouri.
Illinois has some regulations. State law requires the Illinois Department of Public Health to annually inspect and license youth camps.
The Youth Camp Act requires IDPH staff to inspect the water supply, sewage disposal system, electrical system, general sanitation, food service and water recreational facilities along with camp construction plans and issue permits for new camps.
Another parent halfway across the country, who knows exactly how the Misters feel, has been guiding their way in their fight toward regulation.
His 6-year-old daughter drowned at a summer camp in Los Angeles. He’s since founded the Meow Meow Foundation in her honor to advocate for summer camp regulation.
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.”
Burton admits the first draft of his bill to regulate summer camps in Missouri was lengthy, so he whittled it down to the basics, including:
- Run background checks on camp employees.
- Have emergency action plans.
- Require CPR training for staff.
- Require random state inspections for camps with aquatic activities.
Those were all things the Misters assumed were a given for summer camps like the Kennedy Recreation Complex in south St. Louis County.
“If everything was done properly that day, my T.J. would still be here,” Olga Mister said through tears.
The Misters have also filed a civil lawsuit against St. Louis County.
Doug Moore, spokesman for St. Louis County executive Sam Page, sent a statement to the I-Team, which read:
“All camp counselors and customer-facing staff will be certified in first aid, CPR and AED. They had all been trained in these areas before, but not certified. The county also hired Midwest Pool Management to oversee all pools. And all children will be given mandatory swim tests in the camps that include swimming.”
He declined to comment further citing the pending litigation, so it’s unclear whether anyone was ever disciplined for the multiple failures that happened that day.
Councilman Ernie Trakas told the I-Team last fall that he would be pushing the Department of Parks and Recreation to adopt a policy that no county pool can open until all county pools have the necessary staff. He did not return the I-Team’s request for comment on whether he enacted the policy.
The day T.J. died, county employees violated their own policies.
The police report shows there was only one lifeguard on duty for more than 40 kids in the Olympic-sized pool that day – even though the county required two.
The maintenance man called 911 after T.J. was pulled from the pool. A technical glitch a county spokesman said has since been fixed sent the call to another state and it had to be rerouted – costing more critical moments.
In the three-minute 911 call the I-Team obtained, the maintenance man told the 911 operator twice that he was calling from his desk inside a building away from T.J. because he wanted to call from a landline. He couldn’t answer questions about T.J.’s condition to the dispatcher, including whether TJ was conscious or breathing.
Photos show the depth of the pool was 5-foot-8-inches deep at the point in the pool that is labeled 5 feet.
Body camera footage from responding St. Louis County police officers show officers saying the Misters should not be called to the pool, but told to go to the hospital instead.
“We can’t have the parents here, we can’t have the parents here,” one officer says as a camp counselor can be heard telling Olga Mister directions for Travone Mister.
Seconds later, Travone Mister can be seen running toward the officers surrounding the paramedics administering CPR to his son – images with which his wife says he is still struggling to cope.
Some degree of chaos is to be expected during an emergency. Burton said that’s why emergency action plans are a must.
“If there is a natural disaster, there needs to be an emergency action plan,” he said. “If a kid is significantly hurt, there needs to be an emergency action plan.
“God forbid there's an active shooter, there needs to be a plan and it needs to be written down and there needs to be oversight on that for the summer camps.”
Burton’s plan called for the Department of Secondary Education to ensure background checks are conducted on employees, CPR training is done, and emergency action plans are in place.
“They are the same ones who oversee day cares, and we do quite a bit of licensing and registering and laws for our day cares to keep our kids safe, but once they go to summer camp there’s nothing,” he said.
His plan also called for the Department of Senior Services to conduct random inspections at camps with aquatic activities to ensure proper ratios are being kept.
Burton said his research showed the added cost of the regulations his bill would add to camp would be between $15 and $20.
“I think every parent would be willing to pay that,” he said.
So does Olga Mister.
For now, she says it’s all on parents to ask the questions she didn’t know she should have.
“You just have to ask the questions of what if? What if this happens? Are you prepared to protect my child?” she said.
Walking those hallways in the state capitol, she said legislators and others were shocked to learn of the absence of summer camp regulations.
In addition to pushing for the bill, the Misters now run an organization called T.J.’s Story to raise awareness through public events. On May 20, they had volunteers teaching children how to administer CPR between chasing bubbles, dancing to a DJ and playing with Slinkies – one of T.J.’s favorite toys.
Olga Mister said she struggled to watch the kids at the event, knowing her son should be running along with them.
The organization’s next plan is a stuffed animal donation drive. The goal is to collect 500 stuffed animals to give to pediatric hospitals in St. Louis. The teddy bear Travone Mister put at the fence surrounding the pool where his son died inspired the idea.
“T.J. came to me and told me he wants other children to have them,” Olga Mister said.
They plan to deliver the animals on July 20.
It’s the day Olga Mister calls her son’s "Angel-versary" – the day she says he became an angel.
And, six months after that, they’ll be back in the hallways of the state capitol in Jefferson City.
To learn more about how to contact your elected officials to voice support for the summer camp regulation bill, visit www.senate.mo.gov or www.house.mo.gov. To support TJ's Story, click here.
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