News 4 Investigates: Parents of boy who drowned at summer camp say his death could have been prevented

Published: Jan. 10, 2023 at 10:29 PM CST
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - Parents of a 6-year-old boy who drowned at a summer camp run by St. Louis County believe their son’s death could have been prevented and are now pushing for Missouri to require licensing for camp programs.

In Missouri, camps, unlike other childcare programs like daycare centers, are not required to be licensed with the state. That means there is no requirement for things like CPR training and background checks for employees.

In July 2022, TJ Mister drowned at the Kennedy Recreation Center pool while attending Kennedy Kids Camp.

“He woke up that day so excited to go to camp,” TJ’s dad Travone Mister said.

Nearly 6-months after TJ’s death, the Misters claim St. Louis County isn’t telling them much about what happened and if anyone was held accountable.

“That’s what we want to find out with TJ, what’s the truth,” Travone Mister said.

Most of what is known publicly about TJ’s drowning is from an investigation by StarGuard Elite, a private company the county hires for lifeguard certification.

The copy of the report the county provided to News 4 Investigates is six pages long, and staff names are blocked out.

According to the StarGuard report, that day at the Kennedy pool there were around 40 kids ranging from 5 to 12 years old, and only one lifeguard. The report notes that there was a second lifeguard scheduled, but they called out, and a decision was made to open the pool. The report does not say who made that decision, but that choice violated county policy which requires two lifeguards to open the Kennedy pool.

“What were you thinking? Did you think that was going to be okay?” TJ’s mom, Olga Mister, questioned. “Nobody ever told us there was only going to be one lifeguard and 40 kids.”

There were surveillance cameras at the pool and video shows TJ in the water. That video has not been publicly released, but it was part of the StarGuard investigation.

The report said the video shows TJ getting in the water where he “appears to struggle.” The report said more than four minutes passed before a camp counselor pulls TJ out of the pool.

“No one was paying attention to the pool,” Travone Mister said.

The StarGuard report notes several missteps that happened once TJ was out of the water. In those initial key minutes, the 911 call went to a dispatch center in Colorado and had to be redirected back to St. Louis County. News 4 Investigates learned that’s because the recreation center had internet-based phones and the county hadn’t properly set them up to ensure 911 calls stay local.

The reports said that staff did CPR but did not use an AED, a lifesaving device. The report notes that staff saw the AED only had “adult pads” and “decided not to use it,” even though adult pads “can and should still be used on a child.”

StarGuard also found there were no lifejackets at the pool, and the Misters said the camp never asked for TJ’s swim level.

“I actually on the first day asked about letting them know TJ doesn’t know how to swim and asking what their procedure was. I was told that there was going to be counselors in the pool with him which we have found out that there weren’t,” Olga Mister said.

The Misters are suing the county civilly in a $40 million wrongful death suit.

“You can’t put a price on a person’s life. 40 million, that is a number. That’s not TJ. This 40 million I’ll give it up if I can get my son back,” Travone Mister said.

What the Misters want is change. They believe if camps were regulated, kids would be safer.

“I never knew there were no regulations, I just assumed it was the government,” Olga Mister added.

Turns out this lack of regulation is something that’s being seen across the country.

In California, Doug Forbes tragically knows this all too well. His six and half-year-old daughter Roxie drowned at a Los Angeles summer camp in June 2019.

“We’re just kind of letting camps get away with this wild, wild west operating model,” said Forbes, who has become a camp safety advocate.

Recently Forbes helped get two new ordinances passed in Los Angeles County, one is for camp safety, and the other is for aquatic safety.

“That apology starts with change, so let’s get this changed and rely on me here and the model we established in LA county,” Forbes said.

Forbes has traveled to St. Louis County and reached out to council members urging them to consider camp safety ordinances. He said safety regulations also need to be happening on the state and federal level.

“You may have hundreds of thousands of kids going to a couple thousand camps in St. Louis shooting .22 caliber rifles, ziplining over tree canopies, climbing sheer rock walls, jumping into dark waters from cliffs and none of that is protected or overseen by any third party agency,” Forbes said. “I personally don’t understand how we could put children in harm’s way like that and not have any regulation whatsoever when in fact Missouri does in fact have daycare licensing requirements.”

In St. Louis County ordinance changes come from the county council.

News 4 Investigates went to every council member to ask about camp safety. Most ignored our e-mails and calls. Council Presidents Rita Heard Days left a voicemail saying she couldn’t talk.

“I’m not really comfortable in talking about that at this particular point. I know that, you know we are going to be at some point liable for that,” Heard Days said in the voicemail.

One council member who won’t talk on camera, Ernie Trakas, had a lot to say about the Kennedy pool before.

News 4 Investigates obtained e-mails showing months before the pool opened for the summer county park staff struggled to hire lifeguards and were concerned about safety issues.

In an e-mail from May, Deputy Director Brian Schaffer recommended not opening the Kennedy pool. Days later council member Trakas got involved. Trakas e-mailed Parks Director Tom Ott and Deanna Venker, who works in the County Executive Office as the Chief Administrative Officer.

In the e-mail Trakas wrote, “Let me make myself perfectly clear. I expect the Kennedy pool be opened 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.”

When News 4 Investigates asked Trakas about that, he e-mailed us explaining that he wanted enough staff “so the pool could be opened safely” and he went on to say that he was not involved in the decision to open the pool.

At the County Executive’s Office Dr. Sam Page would not answer News 4′s questions.

Chief Communications Officer for St. Louis County, Doug Moore, provided News 4 with the following statement, “Any proposed ordinance that the county council would put forward on camp programs, Dr. Page would certainly consider.”

As the County Executive, it is Dr. Page’s elected responsibility to consider all ordinances proposed by the county council.

There is a push on the state level for change.

Democratic Rep. Michael Burton said he is working on a bill to require licensing for camps. Burton said there will also be mandatory background checks and staff with medical training.

“If they were licensed, this tragedy would have never happened,” said Burton, who represents South County. “St. Louis County Council and our County Executive need to understand that in just five to six months summer is going to be here, and so these things need to change before the summer.”

Burton said he plans to introduce his bill this month.

As the Mister family fights for answers and justice, their civil lawsuit may be the only way to get that. The family just learned St. Louis County prosecutors aren’t pursuing criminal charges in TJ’s death.

The county will not say if anyone was fired or disciplined over TJ’s death. However, there was a significant staff change in the parks department. The Director, Tom Ott, recently retired. He was replaced by Brian Schaffer, who used to work as the deputy director of the department. Emails obtained by News 4 Investigates show that both Ott and Schaffer were involved in conversations about the lifeguard shortage and questions about opening the Kennedy pool.

A spokesperson for St. Louis County provided the following statement for this story: “To respect the legal process, we will not comment on pending litigation.”