‘My baby would be alive today’ Parents plead lawmakers to pass camp licensing following 6-year-old’s drowning

Published: Apr. 11, 2023 at 9:10 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - A first hearing was held on Tuesday for a proposed bill to would require licensing for summer camps, prompted by the tragic drowning of 6-year-old TJ Mister.

Last July, TJ drowned at during a summer camp run by St. Louis County at the Kennedy Recreation Center.

His parents, Olga and Travone Mister, spoke on Tuesday as the bill was discussed by Missouri House lawmakers during a Children and Families Committee hearing.

“If only something could have gone right that day, if there was any regulations in place, my baby would be alive today,” Olga Mister told the committee. “I wouldn’t be sitting here begging you, pleading you, to not allow another mother to feel this, to lose a child.”

The Misters call the proposed bill TJ’s law. It would require licensing for summer camps and make background checks and first aid training mandatory, both things that are currently not required.

“I was shocked to learn that many of those supervising children at summer camps have no formal life-saving training,” Rep. Brian Seitz said during the hearing.

The latest draft of the legislation is backed by Seitz, a Republican who represents the Branson area. Seitz told his colleagues during the hearing that this is significant for him since it has him changing his long-time stance.

“The time has come to do some regulation, and that is probably the first time I have said that during my political career, but this deals with children and the protection of children,” Seitz said.

Previous reporting by News 4 Investigates exposed what the Misters consider a series of missteps by the St. Louis County employees, including e-mails showing months before summer camp staff knew there were lifeguard shortages and questioned if the Kennedy pool should be closed for safety.

News 4 Investigates also reported how TJ struggled in the water for almost five minutes before a counselor pulled him out. Records on the drowning show there were 40 kids and only one lifeguard, despite county policy requiring two lifeguards. When staff called 911, the call was routed to a call center in Colorado. News 4 Investigates learned that’s because the County failed to properly set up its internet-based phones.

“There were lethal mistakes that were made that day that killed our TJ, our joy. CPR was not done properly. TJ’s chest was not rising as they were putting air in his lungs, the AED machine sat next to him,” Olga Mister told lawmakers.

The Misters have been pushing for changes since TJ’s death, always saying they don’t want another family to know their pain.

“TJ asked me, ‘Are you picking me up today?’ and I said, ‘yea, buddy.’ TJ never came home that day. He was taken from us,” Travone Mister told lawmakers. “Camp should have protections in place.”

Multiple people affiliated with summer camps spoke in opposition to the proposed changes.

“I think there are some things that we can all agree that this is what we would like for the safety of our children but maybe stop short of licensing,” said Kelly Schultz, the director of policy and partnerships for the Missouri State Alliance of YMCAs.

Also speaking in opposition was the Missouri Parks and Recreation Association, which represents members that include county parks departments.

“We will never be able to regulate every accident away,” said the Association’s Executive Director Gary Gates.

Gates claimed background checks would hurt camps that are already struggling to find seasonal help.

“Our day camp providers and summer camp providers have to start the hiring process in January now to find staff for the summer. Does that mean that they’re going to have to back that up and start in October just so they can conduct these background checks for 16-, 17-, 18-year-old kids, hopefully none of them have anything that’s negative on there,” Gates said. “That could be very troublesome and finding employees. How much does the background cost the operator of the camp, how long does it take to receive the results.”

Gates also argued that he believes some day camps might be forced to close.

Currently, many Missouri employers report pre-employment background checks taking a few days.

The latest draft of the proposal notably exempts religiously affiliated camps from having to be licensed.

The Misters are hoping for a vote on this soon. Lawmakers have a little over a month left in the legislative session.