Family of boy who drowned at summer camp reaches $8 million settlement with St. Louis County

Published: Jul. 27, 2023 at 10:02 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS COUNTY (KMOV) -- St. Louis County has reached a settlement with the family of a 6-year-old who drowned at a summer camp run by the county.

The Mister family confirmed to News 4 they reached a settlement with the county for $8 million. Olga and Travone Mister’s son TJ drowned at Kennedy Kids Camp, a summer camp run by St. Louis County in July 2022. As part of the deal, the county will also name a playground at Suson Park after TJ. The Misters have repeatedly called for accountability after their son’s death and started a foundation called “TJs story” in an effort to prevent drowning deaths from happening again.

“It didn’t bring him back. I mean it still hurts every day when you wake up and he’s not there, that doesn’t change because you have some money,” Olga Mister said.

“That’s the loss we took in the case, TJ’s not coming back,” Travone Mister added.

Currently, the county faces a $44 million budget deficit. According to St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page’s office, the settlement will not affect the deficit. Page’s office says the plan is to pay $3 million from the county’s risk insurance, and the remaining $5 million will come from the parks department’s improvement budget. The plan is to pay that $5 million out over five years.

“TJ’s drowning was an absolute tragedy and I hope that today’s settlement brings some solace to his family,” said Page in a statement. “This was an unimaginable loss.”

News 4 Investigates has been pressing for answers in the year since TJ’s death. Reporting by the I-Team uncovered how the camp had 40 kids and only one lifeguard despite county policy requiring two lifeguards. Reporting by News 4 Investigates also uncovered emails showing leaders at the parks department knew about staff shortages in the weeks leading up to summer and questioned if opening the pool would be safe.

The I-Team has also reported how TJ struggled in the water for almost five minutes before he was pulled out, camp staff never used an AED despite having one, and the 911 call was routed to Colorado because the county hadn’t properly set up its internet-based phone system.

“Going forward, we have to make sure that we are accountable for the lives that are in our hands,” said St. Louis County Councilwoman Rita Heard Days.

Heard Days says she wants answers from the parks department now that they’re no longer up against a lawsuit.

“The department and I need to come together to figure our how to keep this from happening again,” she said, adding that she wants a meeting before the council. “The loss of a child is just a travesty and there’s no two ways around this.”

St. Louis County Police investigated the drowning. According to a police report obtained by News 4 Investigates, a county parks manager was at home when the campers were in the pool. The police report says two campers claim they told a counselor TJ was struggling in the water and were told he was fine.

The county prosecutor’s office didn’t file criminal charges in the drowning. The county hasn’t said if anyone was disciplined. Under Missouri state law, the county doesn’t have to make employee discipline records public.

Many of the parks department leaders who were there last summer still work there today.

The Misters are pushing for statewide safety changes and a law they call “TJ’s law.” It would require licensing for camps. Unlike other childcare locations like daycares, camps are not regulated by the state. That means there is no standard for background checks or having staff with medical training.

The St. Louis County Parks Department claims changes were made this summer, including requiring swim tests for campers and staff with CPR and AED training. St. Louis County park pools are now being run by a private company, Midwest Pools Management.