Doug Forbes recalled that it was a “beautiful” early-summer Friday morning when he and his wife, Elena Matyas, dropped off their 6-year-old daughter Roxie at the “Summerkids” camp in Altadena last June 28.
“We decided that both of us would drive Roxie” to the camp that day, Forbes told the Altadena Town Council on Tuesday night.
“We dropped her off, kissed her on the lips and told her how much we loved her. She walked through the gate and off into the hillside … and it’s the last time we saw her alive.’’
Choking back tears, Forbes, a Pasadena resident, stood at a podium at the Altadena Community Center as he related the tragedy to a crowded, silent room. His wife was at his left side, and blown-up pictures of a beautiful, smiling child were lined up along the front of the council members’ tables.
In the photos, little Roxie is lying on a beach, flashing a sweet grin … playing on a patch of grass with a toy monkey … running joyously through a shower of bubbles.
“Forty-five minutes later,’’ Forbes went on, “the camp called to say there was an emergency. When we arrived at Huntington Hospital, we saw a little body that looked nothing like our girl. Bloated, blue, eyes slightly open but hollow and unresponsive. Roxie had drowned and died at Summerkids. She had been in full cardiac arrest for nearly a half hour. Huntington restored a heartbeat, but her brain was dead.
“We removed Roxie from life support less than a day later. That was the day we drowned with our beloved baby girl. We are still drowning. And we will continue to do so every day for the rest of our lives.”
Forbes and Matyas are forever heartbroken, but they are also angry. They blame their daughter’s death on an unlicensed camp, negligent counselors and, just as significantly, on almost non-existent state standards to regulate kids’ camps.
They brought their story to the Town Council as part of their “Meow Meow Foundation,” named after Roxie’s favorite stuffed animal and aimed at preventing other parents from having to endure the grief they live with every day.
Spearheading their push for increased state regulation of camps, they have joined with state Sen. Anthony Portantino, who last week introduced Senate Bill 955 – “the Roxie Rules Act,” which seeks to address what Portantino acknowledged is “a deficiency in camp licensing, inspection, and oversight.’’
Said Matyas, also choking up as she addressed the council: “It was not just L.A. County that allowed camps to operate without proper licenses or inspections or oversight, it was nearly every city and every county in California.”
SB 955 will take its first steps toward becoming law in March, when it goes before a Senate policy committee. Portantino hopes it can clear both houses of the Legislature by August, in time for Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign into law and have it take effect next Jan. 1.
For Forbes and Matyas, Tuesday’s visit to the Altadena Town Council was an effort to garner support for the bill’s passage – and just one of the first such efforts they plan for all around the state.
“We ask that this council join in this support,” Forbes said, addressing council members.
In their research into the issue and their lobbying efforts, the couple has also met with Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek, County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, U.S. Rep. Judy Chu and Assemblyman Chris Holden, as well as the L.A. County Health Department, the state’s departments of Developmental Services and Social Services, and senior advisers to Gov. Newsom.
They also plan to take their cause wider, advocating a range of drowning-prevention and water-safety measures.
“In researching camp safety issues, Roxie’s parents … discovered that more than a million children attend thousands of California camps and that these camps are largely unregulated,’’ Portantino – whose 25th Senate District includes both Altadena and Pasadena – said in a news release as he introduced the Roxie Rules bill.
Portantino added that, under California law, “There exists a deficiency in camp licensing, inspection, and oversight.’’
“As a father myself, I cannot begin to comprehend what has happened to the Forbes family,’’ Portantino said in an earlier statement. “Losing a child is the single worst thing that can happen to a parent. It hurts even more because we know that this was a preventable tragedy. …
“California sadly trails well behind many other states in regulating recreational camps. Thirty-eight states have some sort of statewide camp regulations, while California does not. This bill will correct this clear omission in state law and bring camps in line with other regulated services such as daycare facilities.’’
Forbes and Matyas have also filed a lawsuit against the Summerkids camp and its owners — four members of the DiMassa family — as well as at least four other Summerkids employees.
As Pasadena Now reported earlier this week, the lawsuit says Roxie entered the camp pool at around 9:25 a.m. on June 28, accompanied by a counselor. About 10 to 15 minutes later, another counselor who was working with other campers some 30 to 45 feet outside the gate of the swimming pool was the first person to notice Roxie – a non-swimmer – floating face down.
“Counselors and staff admitted to being distracted,” Matyas told the council Tuesday.
The suit also alleges that the camp’s “negligent hiring, retention, supervision and training” led to the death of Roxie, the couple’s only child. They are demanding a jury trial.
As reported earlier by Pasadena Now, state documents show the California Department of Social Services substantiated two allegations that Summerkids has operated without a required license, which the state says “poses an immediate health, safety or personal-rights risk to children in care.”
Camp director Cara DiMassa – while saying that she and her family are “still in grief” – characterized the drowning as a “swimming accident” in a January email. But she also said that plans call for the Summerkids to re-open on June 8 for its summer session.
“There have been numerous inaccuracies about the incident in local media reports,” DiMassa’s email said. “Please know that we appreciate your support and are looking forward to summer.”
But such words burn Forbes and Matyas.
“The DiMassas could have [owned] their accountability and turned a preventable tragedy into a teachable moment,” Matyas said. “But they did the opposite. They protected their reputation, their turf and their income. And they dishonored a little girl and all who loved her.”
But the matter goes well beyond the Summerkids camp, Forbes and Matyas stressed. It is a statewide problem that they hope the Roxie Rules bill will address … ensuring that some good will come out of their daughter’s tragic death.
“Children do not drown themselves,’’ Forbes said. “Adults are accountable, period, end of story. And it’s about freaking time we own up to our unforgivable lack of (regard).”
Pasadena Now Managing Editor André Coleman contributed to this report