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Parents of toddler who died in Arlington from rare amoeba reach settlement with the city

From left to right: Attorney Stephen Stewart, Tariq Williams, Kayla Mitchell and Brian Hargrove stand in front of a stand of microphones in front of Tarrant County Court in Fort Worth.
Kailey Broussard
Attorneys Stephen Stewart (far left) and Brian Hargrove (far right), hold a press conference March 31, 2022, with Tariq Williams and Kayla Mitchell after reaching a settlement in the death of Mitchell and Stewart's son, Bakari. The 3-year-old boy died in September 2021 after contracting a fatal disease traced to an Arlington splash pad.

Six months after losing their son to a rare, fatal disease contracted from an Arlington splash pad, Tariq Williams and Kayla Mitchell say they've reached an agreement with the city that they believe will prevent more deaths.

Under the settlement, the city of Arlington will pay the family $250,000, which is the highest amount people can receive from municipalities under state law. The city will also be required to tighten its safety measures and increase public education efforts.

"Most important to the parents of Bakari Williams was to do everything in their power to see that a senseless loss like this never occurs again," said Stephen Stewart, one of the family's attorneys.

The updated set of policies, titled "The Bakari Williams Protocol," includes city plans to post QR codes that link to updated water quality data and upgrade safety equipment in most aquatic facilities.

A city spokesperson said in an email statement that the settlement is "a significant investment" in its public spaces.

"We plan to share this information with other agencies in the aquatics industry so they can learn from our hard lessons," the statement read.

The toddler’s family and their attorneys have said since September that Bakari's death was "100% preventable."

Mitchell recalled 3-year-old Bakari as a "sweet, beautiful and innocent" boy. He died in September, days after his parents took him to Don Misenhimer Park in south Arlington, where water fountains shaped like sea creatures offer a respite from the hot summer days.

Bakari died of primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), a rare and highly fatal disease caused by Naegleria fowleri. The amoeba attacks the human brain when it enters the body through the nose and is most common in freshwater streams.

A review of city water quality and maintenance documents found that park employees did not test water quality on more than 60 of the 100 days the park was open last summer. Water treatment such as chlorination kills N. fowleri.

Mitchell said Thursday the family was focused on raising public awareness of the consequences of untreated water.

“We want to make certain that nothing like this ever happens again. We want to make certain that what happened to our son, that what happened to our family, does not happen to anybody else," she said.

Pictures of 3-year-old Bakari Williams, who died September 2021 from a brain-eating amoeba, line Don Misenhimer Park, where he was infected.
Pictures of 3-year-old Bakari Williams, who died September 2021 from a brain-eating amoeba, line Don Misenhimer Park, where he was infected.

'Nothing could knock him down'

Williams and Mitchell sued the city of Arlington for at least $1 million in damages in early October. Williams told media at an Oct. 4 press conference that he and Mitchell were focused on raising awareness of the disease and consequences of improper aquatic park maintenance.

Mitchell said during the conference that Bakari began running a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit and stopped eating and drinking the day after playing at the park. His parents had to help him to the bathroom.

"Nothing could knock him down, so I knew something was wrong," Mitchell said in October.

The toddler's parents regularly took him to Misenhimer Park in south Arlington, one of the city's four splash pads. City employees closed the park after Bakari's death — days before the pad closed for the summer — and announced the park would remain closed pending investigation of park maintenance protocol.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded around 150 PAM cases since 1962. All but four of the cases have been fatal, and the majority of people infected died within 18 days of exposure.

The disease kills people experiencing symptoms within five days. Symptoms typically start with fever, headaches, nausea and vomiting and later include hallucinations, seizures, coma and altered mental state.

Deputy City Manager Lemuel Randolph said last fall the city would investigate the gaps in daily inspections and keep the splash pads closed until the city could review and update its protocol.

The city plans to create presentations about the lessons learned from Bakari's death by June 30 to present to leaders from other cities, according to information about the Bakari Williams Protocol city officials handed out during the press conference announcing the settlement.

Got a tip? Email Kailey Broussard at kbroussard@kera.org. You can follow Kailey on Twitter @KaileyBroussard.

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Kailey Broussard covers Arlington for KERA News and The Arlington Report. Broussard has covered Arlington since 2020 and began at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram before joining the station in 2021.