“We kissed our girl and told her how much we adore her. Her slim body was swelled beyond recognition less than an hour later.” Parents campaign for change after losing daughter to summer camp neglect.

“The 4th of December, 2012. It was the most significant day of our life. Roxie Mirabelle Forbes came into the world seven weeks early and weighing little over three pounds, shattering our preconceived conceptions of love. The air in our lungs, the sun on our shoulders, and the steady beat of our hearts were the young girl with a mighty heart and irresistible smile.

Our hearts stopped pounding, the air withdrew, and the sun vanished behind the horizon for good six and a half years later. We were hovering over an empty vessel that had been filled with everything we’d ever wanted barely an hour earlier.

We sang one final time, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” before walking away from our baby’s body, never again able to touch her, kiss her, laugh with her, cry with her, learn with her, grow with her, and see her blossom into the magnificent lady we knew she would become. Roxie was no longer alive. We were in the same boat.

It had been a fantastic Friday morning. The sky is a brilliant blue. The air is crisp. Another day with a lot of potentials. Another day to savor our child, each other, and seemingly perfect life. We kissed our girl on the lips, told her we loved her to the moon and back and stood there watching her amble between Live Oaks on a grassy bluff toward her new pals, who were waiting for the campfire to start.

We let out the most primal of cries as ambulance doors swung wide to the trauma entrance of the same hospital where Roxie was delivered less than an hour later. Her bright blue eyes were half-closed and black. Her normally thin physique had become swollen to the point of becoming unrecognizable. Hair that had been golden and smooth has dried like straw. Skin that was once radiant turned waxy-blue. She had a rusty, almost rotting odor to her.

That day, a massive mass of misery walked into our house and refused to leave. At her Spanish immersion school, there were no more blossoming friendships. There will be no more Go Fish matches with ‘Gramma.’ There will be no more wonderful visits with any of your relatives or friends. There will be no more milk moustaches. There will be no more bike journeys to feed the ducks. Birthdays, holidays, Mondays, and Fridays are no longer celebrated. There will be no more calm discussions about how the world works. There will be no more firsts. There will be no more ‘Momma.’ There will be no more ‘Daddy.’ There will be no more hourly “I love you”s. There will be no more parenting.

We wondered if Roxie was still on the other side of Roxie’s bedroom door before we were eventually able to open it. Perhaps she’s meticulously clicking Legos into place, creating strange, Cubist-like pictures that made our hearts sing, or staging dramas with a cast of plastic characters for whom she speaks a variety of delectable accents.

Roxie, on the other hand, was not present. She was never going to be there. Her favorite companions were no longer her trucks, plush animals, books, pencils, shoes, hats, and sunglasses. There was no sign of oxygen in an otherwise infinitely active space. That’s because Roxie surrendered all of her last breath to the merciless waters of that summer camp pool.

What We’ve Found Out About Camps:

Baseball isn’t America’s favorite pastime. It’s summer camp for kids. Camp has evolved into much more than a rite of passage. It’s almost like school, except that 25 million cooped-up kids get to let off steam by running wild and free.

We grew up on the east coast and spent our summers at the Jersey Shore with our sisters and relatives, enjoying long days at the beach. We never went to camp, and we don’t know if our parents could or would have paid for it. However, after arriving to LA, we’ve discovered that camp culture is as widespread as motorway traffic.

We talked about summer childcare alternatives in February of Roxie’s kindergarten year. We now recognize, more than ever, that our decision was influenced by the decisions of others. It can’t be right if everyone else does it but us, can it?

We use the term “recreational childcare program” because that is exactly what camps are: facilities where parents can drop off their children who require supervision while we go about our everyday lives or even take adult-only vacations. Camps, unlike daycares, lack vital oversight, regardless of their reputation or duration… Day camps are allowed to operate without a license in 13 states, whereas overnight (sometimes known as a resident) camps are not regulated in nine. This means no background checks, no emergency action plans, no employee qualifications, no training standards, no lifeguarding, CPR, or First Aid certificates, no counselor-to-child ratios — nothing.

In addition, according to our study, camps licensed by 37 states are only required to follow the most basic rules, ordinances, and oversight. Moreover, governments and counties frequently provide exemptions to faith-based camps without providing any rationale. It’s perplexing how parents and childcare providers interpret “camps” differently. Why is it that we are less skeptical of camp operations than we are of typical daycare centers or schools? Is it because camps serve as a place of refuge rather than a place of education?

When a daycare facility calls itself a camp, we breathe a sense of relief. But there’s a distinction. Finger painting, sing-alongs, and other low-risk activities are available at daycare centers. High-risk activities abound at camps, on the other hand. Children as young as eight years old can shoot live rounds from firearms, scale sheer rock walls, zip-line across tree canopies, participate in a variety of aquatic activities, and much more. And the vast majority of those activities are carried out with only a smidgeon of complete risk management.

Parents are hesitant to express anything other than their thanks for their child’s participation in camp. After all, camp waitlists match those for prestigious colleges. We didn’t ask our daughter’s camp if they were licensed because of our sense of luxury or pride. We didn’t think we needed to ask such a question in the first place, to be honest. Roxie visited a camp that has been in operation for nearly 40 years. It must, without a doubt, be licensed. And that license, certainly, has some significance.

After neglecting Roxie to death, the camp did not shut down for a single minute, revealing the harsh reality. The lack of regulation rendered the health department and the county powerless, leaving them with no option but to close them down, even if only temporarily, while they investigated the cause of entirely preventable death. Parents were not allowed to pick up their children early that day since the proprietors wanted things to be as normal as possible. Imagine if a school tried to prevent parents from recovering, much less consoling, their children after they had witnessed another child’s heinous death.

When faced with public relations nightmares, we’ve seen various camp organizations adopt evasive and preclusion strategies. As proven by the recently uncovered sex abuse scandals at camps, non-disclosure agreements and large cash settlements keep thousands of parents and victims of camp tragedies mute. Thousands of children have undoubtedly suffered from preventable sexual predation at camps for decades, according to ongoing study.

Are we wearing blinders in order to hear the story we want to hear? Are we willing to accept a definition of the “best” summer camp based solely on high-octane, specialty offerings – such as aviation, trapeze, “secret agent,” ATV/motorsports – without taking danger into account? Are we relying on the responses of people who have money interests rather than those who have safety interests?

What We’ve Discovered About Lifeguards So Far:

Since Roxie’s birth, we’ve had a pool in our backyard. She got swimming classes but was still unable to swim. We questioned the camp directors how Roxie would be cared for during swim time before camp started. They assured us that certified American Red Cross (ARC) lifeguards and water safety instructors would keep the kids safe while teaching them the basics. They promised to assist Roxie in becoming “water-safe.”

Roxie’s wrongful death lawsuit revealed that counselors arrived on a Saturday morning for “training” and left in the afternoon as licensed lifeguards and water safety instructors. This is obviously not viable, as ARC certification needs at least 26-30 hours of in-pool and classroom training and assessment. Roxie’s camp and its American Red Cross representative never put the counselors through any kind of testing.

Since then, our thorough study has all but proven how flawed the ARC training system is. Roxie’s camp was authorized as a Licensed Program Provider (LTP) by the ARC, which means the camp could certify nearly anyone as a lifeguard or water safety instructor as long as the training is overseen by an ARC-certified instructor. The ARC, on the other hand, never bothers to visit the training centers that they recommend. As a result, practically any LTP might conduct training in a kiddie pool or even a coffee shop without anybody noticing, as long as the ARC teacher falsifies the training results. That is precisely what happened to us.

The ideal storm was created by the widespread lack of checks and balances, as well as the allegedly fraudulent camp operators and ARC representatives. We’re not sure if any of the counselors at the program can truly swim because of the deception. According to his own testimony, one of the illegally qualified counselors made such a heinous rescue attempt that we have to doubt if Roxie would have had a chance otherwise.

After personnel is employed, usually a week or two before the season begins, recreational childcare facilities generally give their own training and lifeguard certification. What is the efficacy of such last-minute training? Hundreds, if not thousands, of children, are enrolled, waiting lists are maintained, and staffing is kept as thin as possible to maintain business margins.

When Roxie drowned, there were allegedly four counselors/lifeguards on duty in the 25′ by 50′ pool, which isn’t much bigger than our backyard pool. None of the counselors seemed to notice Roxie was in danger. When an adult is close but fails to provide active supervision, about 80% of kid drownings occur. Drowning is a silent and fast process. When lifeguards are preoccupied, undertrained, or both, the situation soon becomes bleak.

Chaos and fear occurred after Roxie was supposedly noticed by a fifth counselor well beyond the pool area. Nobody was prepared to administer lifesaving care since camp employees were not properly trained. Operators of the camp had never considered conducting extensive training on an emergency action plan. Before enrolling Roxie, we never bothered to ask if they had done so. We never imagined our daughter would be the victim of a for-profit daycare center that prioritizes profits over children.

Roxie’s Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by Roxie.

Roxie followed in the footsteps of her peers. She ran, leaped, danced, sang, traveled, played in pools, learned to read, and irritated us with her tenacity. That sort of thing. It’s all part of growing up. And she was hilarious…like pee-in-your-pants hilarious. Most importantly, she adored the act of falling in love. She lived to love, in reality. Hugs were her preferred form of payment. Everyone who knew her, whether for a few minutes or a lifetime, reminded us that she did indeed leave the world a better place than she found it.

Because a camp failed to maintain a simple commitment – to keep our baby safe — three lives were lost on the day Roxie drowned. What we couldn’t have predicted happened to us. Our goal is to keep other parents from experiencing avoidable despair. Roxie would demand that no other child go through what she did. As a result, we established the Meow Meow Foundation in her honor to put an end to tragic youth drownings and camp abuse.

We are well aware of the social, emotional, and mental health benefits that camps may provide. For the same reasons, we sent Roxie to a summer camp. There are certain camp owners who go above and above. They put safety first. They are well-programmed. They also believe in thorough training. However, there is still a lot of work to be done to persuade the thousands of other camps that aren’t on the same page. We’ve worked nonstop to bring about change and keep children safe. Our efforts are beginning to bear fruit. The country’s largest county has committed to enforcing and enforcing camp laws.

Our organization has formed alliances with child advocates, doctors, psychiatrists, and adolescent development professionals who have an extensive camp experience. For camp operators and parents, they provide objective training, instruction, and counseling. However, it is still the responsibility of parents to look past bias when it comes to getting their children out of the house and determining whether the camp is in their child’s best interests. By the way, the youngster should always be included in the discussion.

Roxie marched for immigrant rights, donated her gifts to children affected by California wildfires, and was always at the side of children who had been wronged. Please remember her by holding your children frequently, reminding them how much you love them, and enjoying what matters every day.”

The story and photos: Courtesy of Doug Forbes