Pasadena Parents Lament Unasked Questions Following Young Daughter’s Drowning

Published : Wednesday, August 14, 2019 | 4:53 AM

Six-year-old Roxie, the only child of Pasadena parents Doug Forbes and Elena Matyas, drowned in an Altadena summer camp swimming pool on June 28, 2019. Courtesy photo

Doug Forbes and Elena Matyas, whose only child, six-year-old Roxie, drowned in an Altadena camp swimming pool earlier this summer, are pushing beyond their personal grief to tell another story.

Theirs is a cautionary tale for all parents who permit others to care for their children near or in swimming pools. Do ask questions, the couple says, do be told how your child’s life will be guarded, or else the excruciating pain and sense of guilt that haunt Forbes and Matyas could blindside you too.

Roxie drowned June 28 at Summerkids camp on Fair Oaks Avenue in the unincorporated Altadena foothills.

According to Forbes, Roxie was dead when pulled from the pool, but was resuscitated and placed on life support. Brain dead, her parents decided to end her short life.

Heartbroken, they are on a mission to prevent other parents from feeling the terrible pain that is theirs to bear.

“We never thought this could happen to us,” Matyas said. “And the moment that it did happen to us, as I was sitting with Roxie after she was resuscitated in the trauma room of Huntington Hospital, I said, what about all those other babies? This must never happen again.”

Citing World Health Organization statistics, Forbes said that when it comes to children aged one-through-four, drowning is the number one cause of death outside of birth defects. In the one-through-14 age category, drowning is the second most common cause of unintentional death after car accidents.

“Is that staggering enough?” he asked.

“One preventable drowning death is too many and we’re going to continue to use the right language,” said Forbes. “It’s not an ‘accident.’ The Di Massa family [the camp’s owners] continues to call it an ‘incident’ as if they were victimized. This was a preventable drowning death.”

Summerkids representatives have declined to be interviewed but responded with a statement that the situation is under evaluation.

Forbes and Matyas said they are considering legal action, but their real priority is to push for legislation that protects camp goers and raises awareness of parents about drowning prevention.

“Seven weeks ago,” said Matyas, “we never thought we would be sitting here today. We chose a summer camp for Roxie where we assumed she would be safe.”

Now, Forbes said, the couple needs “to stop just being these aggrieved parents.”

“Sadness shouldn’t be the message. Media, unfortunately, has this tendency to ambulance chase rather than understand that there’s a really big story here to tell.”

“How is it that parents just send their kids to camps without saying, ‘Hmm, are they licensed?’” he asked “‘Are they certified? What oversight do they have? Who’s really accountable here? How much actual experience do these counselors have?’”

Reporters, Forbes pointed out, go to documents, do research, do what is necessary to tell the accurate, fact-based story, “and that’s where we failed as parents. We did not do that front-end due diligence on this camp.”

There may be something about summer camps that causes usually vigilant parents to drop their guard when putting their children in the care of what he called, “17-year-olds who can’t vote and can barely drive.”

At Summerkids, Forbes said, there were four counselors at the pool when Roxie drowned.

“And they double as lifeguards,” he alleged. “They put on their nice lifeguard caps and all of a sudden they’re lifeguards.”

According to the county coroner investigator who handled Roxie’s case, she may have been face down in the shallows for many minutes.

“We can’t get into the minutiae of this, but the facts are that they were derelict in their duty as per the reports from a detective, coroner, [and] investigator,” said Forbes.

The pair learned, after the fact, that there is little regulation or standardization of the organized day camp industry.

“The only oversight that we know of comes by way of the American Camp Association, an educational body that ensures the quality of camp programs,” he said. “But that’s a voluntary membership situation. Camps like Summerkids choose not to rely on them while Tom Sawyer Camps do.”

There is no protocol for, say, a pre-summer walk-through of a camp that tests the pool, drills staff, does emergency preparedness or an active shooter drill, he explained.

There are regulations, but there is a lack of what Forbes “connective tissue” between state directives on camps and the camps’ actual, local operation.

“There’s a complete lack of continuity,” he emphasized

Summerkids markets itself as a place where the first rule is to have fun, Forbes noted.

“I think it needs to be the first rule is to make sure the kids are safe,” he added. “So that blind spot goes away entirely. And what does it take for that blind spot to be erased? It takes legislation. It takes an action plan.”

“And awareness,” added Matyas. “Awareness as to making educated decisions. Never take safety for granted. Ask questions. Put people in uncomfortable positions to earn your trust.”

The couple are forming a foundation named after their daughter’s beloved Scrappy Cat doll.

“She called it ‘Meow-Meow’ and, so we are starting the Meow-Meow Foundation,” said Forbes. “And the primary purpose will be to promote water safety initiatives, but it’s also about changing the rules.”

By that he means asking the state why it doesn’t license camps and why there is such a gap between what California wants to happen at camp and what actually happens on the ground.

“We are on a mission to prove that gap exists and we’re also on a mission to use Roxie as a consequence of that gap,” he asserted. “ We’ve already reached out to some local officials like Assemblyman Chris Holden and Rep. Judy Chu’s office, we’ll go all the way up the food chain to Sacramento.”

On Tuesday, Forbes said in an email the couple will meet this week State Senator Anthony Portantino.

But their activism does not shroud their grief, which is palpable and can be heard whenever the couple talks about their lost child.

“She was beautiful and her spirit was even more beautiful than she was physically,” said Matyas. “She could light up a room with hugs and love and she respected adults. I was so proud of her when she would enter a room, she would look an adult in the eye and say, ‘What’s your name?’ or ‘Who are you? ‘Or just…”