My Daughter Died At Summer Camp — Don't Make The Same Mistakes I Made

by Elena Matyas
Originally Published: 
A portrait of a daughter that died at the summer camp
Courtesy of Elena Matyas

Trigger warning: child loss

June 28, 2019 was a crisp, sunny day in Southern California. After our typical morning routine, accented by a “Yay! it’s Friday!” cheer, my husband and I dropped off our daughter Roxie at a well-known family-run recreational child care facility in greater Los Angeles. We kissed Roxie on the lips, told her we loved her to the moon and back and watched as she ambled down the grassy hill to meet her new friends at campfire.

That was the last time we saw Roxie alive.

It was only an hour later when the ambulance doors swung open outside the trauma entrance of the hospital where Roxie was born only six years earlier. I shuddered in horror as her sparkling blue eyes were stuck half-open and black. Her slim body was bloated nearly beyond recognition. Once radiant skin went waxy-blue. She smelled like rusty metal.

Our girl was a vessel, nothing more.

My husband later told me that my scream will define the rest of his life. He knew this was the sound of boundless despair… the moment that he knew without questions that our daughter was dead. And so too was the life that we knew, the life that we loved.

I don’t remember the scream, but I remember the terror of witnessing a legion of medical professionals fighting with all their might to bring my baby back to me. I remember nurses supporting each of my arms as my legs were useless beneath me. I remember doctors juggling tubes, needles, defibrillators, questions, answers, more questions, less answers. It was theater of the worst order. It was a drama without any worthy resolution.

Within 30 minutes of dropping Roxie off at summer camp, she had drowned. She had drowned. She had drowned. My baby had drowned.

Summer became winter. The bitter cold reality of this brutal killing iced my lungs, my heart.

How could this happen? This is not me. This must be somebody else. This must be some nightmare within a nightmare from which you awaken stunned but not stricken.

But it was me. And it is me. And it will forever be me.

Eight months later, the world collapsed again under the weight of a global health crisis. Loneliness doubled down on our lives. We could not even be in the same spaces with the ones we needed most to help us out of the tunnel.

What I did have during this time is, well, time. I had lots and lots of time to retrace my steps, to understand how my parenting – our parenting – might have led us to this place. I also had time to observe the world about me, including the ways in which my friends and family members were managing their own parenting challenges.

After a year of remote learning but no extra-curricular fare, weekend playdates or friendly hangouts, kids are ready to trade in screen time for social time. And parents are sure as hell ready to oblige.

America’s favorite pastime is not baseball. It’s children’s summer camps. In fact, camp has become more than a rite of passage. It’s almost as obligatory as school, except cooped up kids get to exorcise classroom angst by running wild and free.

At this very moment, many camp stakeholders are preaching about how “kids need camp now more than ever.” But before you pack up the sunscreen, sleeping bags, bug spray and tie-dye shirts, I implore you to take a deep breath and consider what I am about to say.

I grew up on the east coast and spent summers at the Jersey shore, relishing long days at the beach with sisters and cousins. I never attended camp and am not sure if my parents could have or would have paid for me to do so. Since moving to Los Angeles, however, I’ve learned that camp culture is as pervasive as freeway traffic. Most friends and colleagues who I consider well-educated, diligent, careful parents enroll their children in camps without a wisp of worry.

Courtesy of Elena Matyas

Around February of Roxie’s kindergarten year, my husband and I discussed childcare options for the summer. I suggested a recreational program because it afforded Roxie the opportunity to roam the great outdoors, recreate and reap the benefits of fresh friendships. I now realize, more than ever, that my decision was steeped in other people’s decisions. If everyone else does it, and I don’t, that can’t be right, right?

That was mistake number one.

My husband had alternative ideas, but we ultimately enrolled our daughter in an 8-week summer recreational daycare program. Thing is, Roxie was never involved in that decision-making process. But c’mon. Running around with other kids, swimming, climbing, exploring is an absolute no-brainer, right?

And that was mistake number two.

I use the term “recreational daycare program” because that’s what camps are – facilities where we drop off our children who need supervision while we go about our daily routine or even embark upon an adults-only vacation.

It’s confounding how parents often view “camps” differently than childcare providers. Why are we often far less critical about oversight at camp operations than we are about traditional daycare facilities or schools? Is it because camps are a source of escape, not education? We often heave a comfortable sigh when a childcare business labels itself a camp.

But, wait a second. Don’t those traditional childcare facilities with oodles of oversight occupy their days with silly sing-alongs, finger-painting, story-time and naps? Summer camps offer zip-lining over treetops, scaling sheer rock walls, shooting arrows or rifles and swimming in crowded pools and wavy waterfronts. And yet, oversight is typically not even close to top of mind for us parents.

Frankly, even if it were top of mind, you kind of feel that you might be labeled as one of “those moms” if you exhibit anything other than heaping gratitude for the privilege of your child’s inclusion. After all, waiting lists for camps rival those of elite schools.

That sense of privilege or pride precluded me from asking my daughter’s camp if they were even licensed. Honestly, I never thought I needed to ask such a question in the first place. Surely all camps are licensed. And surely that license has some meaning. In my case, the camp had been operating for over 40 years. Surely, no childcare operation could carry on for that long without registering itself to ensure compliance with laws or oversight requirements.

And that would be mistake number three.

We’ve had a pool in our backyard since Roxie was born. She took swim lessons but was not yet water-safe. Before camp commenced, I told the assistant director that Roxie was not a swimmer. And on the very first day of camp, the assistant director told me that Roxie had indeed been designated a non-swimmer following an in-pool skills test.

When I asked how Roxie would be cared for during swim time, the assistant director said that counselors who were “certified American Red Cross” lifeguards and water safety instructors would safeguard children in the pool while also teaching fundamentals. For some reason, they chose not to offer formal swim lessons to kids Roxie’s age, but they did pledge to help her become “water-safe.” My doubts about Roxie’s care in the pool were assuaged when camp operators told me that counselors received comprehensive lifeguard training.

Welcome to mistake number four.

During the course of Roxie’s wrongful death lawsuit, we learned that the counselors showed up on a Saturday morning for “training” and left in the afternoon as certified lifeguards and water safety instructors. This, of course, does not comply with requirements that the American Red Cross outlines on their website of roughly 25 hours of training.

Over the past 20 months, we have learned that certain lifeguard training processes and oversight are deeply flawed. In Roxie’s case, the flaws run so deep that we are not sure if any of the counselors at the camp can actually swim adequately. One of the counselors who neglected Roxie performed such an egregious rescue attempt – according to his own account – that I have to wonder if she had a fighting chance were it not for his bogus certification. If this can happen at a camp that has been operating for over 40 years, it can happen anywhere.

I should have never allowed Roxie to access that pool without witnessing their swim procedures. The problem is, the camp’s “no visitor” policy prohibited me from doing so. I accepted it as a means to protect children’s privacy.

Chalk that up as mistake number five. In hindsight, it’s an inane policy that protected the camp’s lethal secrets.

Recreational childcare facilities often provide their own training and lifeguard certification after staffers are hired, a week or two before the season begins. How effective is such last-minute training?

At least 30-40 other children ages 4-6 witnessed Roxie’s gruesome death. The facility’s lack of accountability in knowing an exact number of kids in the pool is another serious red flag. If you don’t know exactly how many kids are in the pool, how can you know if one is missing?

There were a purported four counselors watching the 25’ x 50’ foot pool, which is hardly larger than our backyard pool. Not one of these counselors noticed Roxie drowning. Nearly 80% of childhood drownings occur when an adult is nearby but failing to provide active supervision. Drowning is silent and quick. When lifeguards are distracted, not properly trained, or both, consequences can quickly turn dark.

Once Roxie was allegedly spotted by a fifth counselor well beyond the pool area, chaos and panic ensued. Since camp employees were not properly trained in first aid or CPR, nobody was prepared to provide lifesaving care. Camp operators never even thought to execute intensive training on an emergency action plan. And I never thought to ask if they did so before enrolling Roxie.

Yes, this was mistake number six. Emergency action plans are not optional; they are essential. Fires, earthquakes, disease outbreaks, active shooters, sexual abuse, drownings – unanticipated events must be mitigated by thorough preparedness training.

Are we putting on blinders to support the story we want to hear? Are we accepting a determination of the “best” summer camp based upon high octane, specialty offerings such as aviation, trapeze, “secret agent,” ATV/motorsports, without considering safety concerns?

Aside from COVID-19 concerns at camp, I urge parents and guardians to do their own due diligence. I asked a few moms about their children’s experiences at one of the most popular, highly priced camps in Southern California. They glowed while describing the adventure-packed experience, laughed at the obscene price tag, but defended the cost because their kids had the time of their lives. When I asked how they felt about sending their children, as young as 8 years old, to a facility where riflery is offered, their jaws dropped. These parents had no idea their children had spent time at a recreational child care facility where guns are part of the fun and where those gun ranges were managed by counselors barely past their own childhood.

Courtesy of Elena Matyas

Instead of watching 4th of July fireworks with Roxie, my husband and I sat in the dusky light of a mortuary conference room discussing ashes and urns. The day Roxie drowned was the last day of our lives as we knew them. Three lives ended because a camp did not honor a basic promise — to keep our baby safe. What couldn’t possibly happen to us did happen to us. Two years later, our mission is to prevent other parents from suffering the despair we feel each day.

I fully understand the benefits camps may offer for social, emotional and mental health development. Remember, I sent my child to a camp for those very same reasons. There are certainly camp operators that do the right thing. They prioritize safety. They program appropriately. And, they believe in robust training. But an immense amount of work remains to be done to convince thousands of other camps that do not follow the same path.

Our foundation has forged partnerships with doctors, psychologists and experts in youth development who possess vast camp experience. They offer objective training, education and advice for camp operators and parents. However, it remains a parent’s duty to look beyond their biased interests in getting kids out of the house and to determine whether camp is in the best interest of their child.

If you decide to send your kids to camp, please ask the below questions. Look for guidance from reliable, unbiased sources such as the AAP, your local health department or children’s advocacy groups.

1. Is the camp licensed, and if so, what does that mean? Many states focus camp licensing on the facility (buildings, hygiene standards) and not on operations (qualifications for staffing, training requirements, background checks, camper to instructor ratios).

2. Does any governmental authority inspect the camp or its evaluate it credentials at least once a year?

3. Does the camp run background checks on ALL employees EVERY year? All employees, full-time and seasonal, should have a full background check done each year.

4. What are the qualifications of camp operators? Owning and operating a camp for decades doesn’t necessarily mean one is qualified to do so. Do the operators have childhood development experience? Do they have any formal medical training?

5. How and when are employees trained? If your camp conducts counselor training immediately prior to opening day, beware! How objective is that training? If an employee does not have necessary skills, what is the likelihood they will have the chance to improve before caring for your child?

6. Does the camp employ a qualified health director?

7. Who conducts lifeguard and CPR training, and where does such training occur? If your camp conducts lifeguard training onsite immediately prior to opening day, beware! Lifeguard training is rigorous and requires about 25 hours of written and in-water course work.

8. How is the staff supervised? Who is ensuring counselors are doing their jobs? Is there a process for in-service training?

9. What are the policies for parent communication and visits? Is your camp transparent? If your camp prohibits visitors, this is concerning.

10. Search social media and connect with parents who posted NEGATIVE reviews. Understand their concerns & complaints.

11. Don’t make the same mistakes we made. Our website lists more tips.

Roxie was my only child. When she died, so did most of me. I will never read nighttime stories to my girl, bake cookies with her, stroke her hair while she sits on my lap daydreaming or hear her ask for “one more hug, Momma?” No matter how fed up you are with homeschooling or being homebound with your kids around the clock for over a year, tell them you love them every step of the way.

Most importantly, ask all the questions I failed to ask.

Trust me – you do not want to be me.

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