Unlike child care facilities and schools, children’s day camps are not required to conduct employee background checks, be licensed by the state, require CPR certification or report injuries or deaths to the state. No state agency conducts inspections for child safety, audits lifeguard certifications or reviews safety plans for activities.
Doug Forbes and his late wife Elena Matyas didn’t know this after dropping their daughter Roxie off at the Summerkids camp in Altadena on the morning of June in 2019.
Less than an hour later, they were racing toward the same hospital where Roxie was born to find that their daughter had drowned in the camp pool. She was only 6 years old.
As the couple sought answers about her final moments of life, they discovered the lack of oversight at children’s day camps in California. They promptly filed an ongoing lawsuit against the camp for wrongful death and began advocating for state officials to mandate regulations.
Forbes expressed, “What we found out was that nobody is watching over these camps. Millions of children are at operations that are completely unlicensed.”
When Roxie drowned, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reports show that the lifeguards who were poolside didn’t see her until another camp counselor outside the pool area yelled at them that Roxie was floating face down in the shallow end of the pool.
The family’s lawsuit alleges that the camp was negligent and that the camp’s lifeguards were not trained properly.
In the response to the lawsuit, the camp argues that none of the actions that day were “performed with the requisite malice, oppression, or fraud” for the camp to pay punitive damages.
While there are no regulations for day camps, the state has extensive regulations for child care facilities. At times, the distinction between the two types of businesses is not clear.
Original Proposed Camp Regulations
At the end of May, the state Assembly passed Assembly Bill 1737 to create some oversight for day camps — legislation carried by Pasadena Democratic Assemblymember Chris Holden in response to what happened to Roxie; Its fate is now in the Senate.
Holden’s bill would require all day camps to register with the state Department of Social Services, conduct background checks for all staff and require staff be trained as “mandated reporters,” people legally required to report suspicions of abuse. It would also require non-government camps with certain activities like zip lining, archery, river rafting, etc. to submit their operational and emergency plans.
Under the bill, the Department of Social Services would also conduct random, unannounced inspections of all children’s camps annually. The bill exempts government-run camps from most requirements.
Recent Updates to Camp Regulations
In email responses, both departments said they don’t oversee day camps because day camps are not defined in state statute. State law only defines “organized camps,” which are overnight camps where kids stay five or more nights. These fall under the purview of the state Department of Public Health, which leaves oversight to local counties. The state does not require the counties to report anything about the camps.
Despite the alleged Holden bill to include licensing, regular inspections and a designated health supervisor; those requirements were removed after lobbying by camp advocates and organizations representing county officials, as well as after meetings with the state departments of Public Health and Social Services.
Now, the bill includes registration, random inspections, background checks for all staff and, depending on the type of activities a camp offers, the submission of operational and emergency plans.
Critics of Proposed Regulations
Assemblymember Chris Holden stated, “It would be totally irresponsible for us to continue operating this way as a state knowing what we know and the great harm that has happened to children.”
Three days after Roxie died, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health inspected the pool at the camp and found nine violations. It shut the pool down until those violations were fixed. Counties do oversee public pools but do not regulate day camps.
Madison, Summerkids’ attorney, said that the camp tried to get a county permit after Roxie died, but it is exempt from licensing because it is not considered an organized camp. That may change.
Last year, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to create an ordinance that would regulate both day and overnight camp, and is expected to approve the detailed regulations at the end of June.
Counties are Forbes’ new focus, given the obstacles to strict statewide legislation. He’s got a list of California counties and he’s working his way through it, starting with the most populous.
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