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Not in my backyard: Residents oppose group home relocation

MURRAY – Southwest Villa is a subdivision off Gibbs Store Road in the southwest quadrant of Calloway County. A drive through the idyllic neighborhood reveals a family-friendly culture with trampolines, basketball goals and bicycles dotting yards and driveways throughout.

On July 16, Southwest Villa residents learned, by way of a legal notice printed in the Murray Ledger & Times, that StepStone Family and Youth Services planned to open a group home for boys right around the corner, at 287 Enix Drive.

StepStone is a for-profit company that provides residential services for youth in nine states, including four group homes in the Purchase Area for children ages ten to 17 – one in Paducah, one in Mayfield and two in Murray. Of the Murray facilities, there is a boys’ home on Back Street* and a girls’ home on Robertson Road South*.

At the request of residents, StepStone held a public meeting Friday at its regional office in Benton. The 27-mile drive was no deterrent for approximately 70 people, several with children in tow, who showed up to voice their opposition to StepStone relocating the Back Street facility to their neighborhood.

Chris Hempfling, vice president of service excellence and stakeholder relations for BrightSpring Health Services, which is StepStone’s parent company, ran the meeting flanked by StepStone Vice President Jennifer Parks, all four site supervisors, the regional supervisor, the regional clinical treatment director and the regional HR manager/office coordinator in addition to the Regional Administrator for the Department of Community Based Services for the Lakes Region Renee Buckingham, who is not affiliated with StepStone.

Emotions were high as roughly 100 people, including StepStone staff, government officials and one deputy with the Calloway County Sheriff’s Office crammed into a small, poorly-ventilated conference room.

“You all have come out in full force,” Hempfling began, noting he anticipated a crowd closer to 50. “This is what community is all about. Absolutely. I am in children’s services; that is my job: to raise children. And we can’t do that without strong, committed communities.”

“This is not how we wanted to be introduced to each other; I’ll just say that out front,” he continued. “We truly believe that the communities that we’re in make the children that we serve successful, and we can’t serve children if we don’t have the support of the community. Absolutely not. Our children that we serve in this community, they go to public schools; they ride the school buses; they’ve got jobs in the community; and making sure that those children in the community have everybody’s support for their success is really extremely important to us.”

Calloway County Judge-Executive Kenny Imes spoke for the crowd when he voiced his frustration with the location of the meeting. “We offered you our courtroom, which is much larger and seats a lot more people than this,” he said. “We did that in writing and faxed to you, but you’d already set this down here. That is absurd, and it’s insulting.”

Imes said that the crowd probably represented one-third of the people who have called his office with concerns about the relocation. Citing the distance residents had to drive, the fact that the meeting was scheduled at 2 p.m. on a Friday and that the legal notice was just printed the previous week, he said, “It sounds like something’s getting crammed down their throat, and I don’t appreciate it!”

Early on, Hempfling acknowledged that several residents have collectively retained Murray attorney Jeremy Pruitt to represent their interests in the matter. They argue that establishing any group home on the Enix Drive property would violate the covenants and restrictions of record on the Southwest Villa subdivision plat.

“Now, that Mr. Pruitt has made us aware of some possible covenants on this property, we are evaluating that extremely quickly,” Hempfling explained, “because (a) we need to make sure our kids have a good, safe home; and (b) I don’t want to waste everybody’s time. So, if there are covenants on that house… We, as an organization strive to abide by all of the laws within the state, county and city in all of the regs out there; and with those covenants, if we can’t do it, we can’t do it. … Mr. Pruitt is representing you well, and he has made us known of those potential covenants on that property.”

When asked what he meant by “potential,” Hempflinger said “The only reason I say ‘potential’ is just because we haven’t evaluated that. Like Mr. Pruitt would do – Jeremy, I don’t want to speak for you – when somebody brings us information, any attorney is then gonna verify that information is accurate before they tell their client, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s an accurate piece of information, and you all better buy it.’”

“Why wouldn’t it be accurate?” one man asked. Hempfling replied, “Because your deed is different than the deed on that property. … I need to make sure that the covenant’s on that piece of property.”

A review of the current deed to the Enix Drive property shows it is comprised of two tracts. Notably, tract two is clearly identified as a lot in Southwest Villa, but tract one is not. If tract one is, in fact, not in the subdivision, it would not be subject to the same covenants. Without having the land professionally surveyed, it is impossible to know on which tract the house sits; however, it should also be noted that tract one is only 0.0456 acres and likely too small to accommodate the 4,263 square foot home.

“This morning – I just want everybody to know – that I had a conversation with corporate and their corporate counsel,” Pruitt said during the meeting. “They’re well aware of the restriction of the single-family dwelling. Legally, they are aware of all of this, OK? This (public hearing) is for you guys to voice all your concerns. I’m here taking notes. You continue voicing your concerns, and I’ll take care of (the legal work).”

And voice their concerns they did. Many at the meeting expressed apprehension about property values going down, but the dominant concern among the residents was safety.

Imes noted that there have been issues with residents of the girls’ home wandering around the neighborhood at night since he became judge. “I think that’s part of what we’re talking about,” he said. “These girls (are) just out running lose. I know you’ve got people supposed to be living there, but I don’t know where they are.”

Hempfling and StepStone staff explained that no adults “live” in the group homes, but there are always two staff members present at any given time. That knowledge, however, did not alleviate concerns that children in the home would receive adequate supervision.

On more than one occasion, attendees demanded promises that their children would not be victimized or traumatized by StepStone residents. Each time, Hempfling responded that he cannot make that promise of any child, whether they are in foster care or not.

One resident suggested that juveniles in StepStone’s facilities are more likely to sexually abuse other children by virtue of the trauma they have experienced, prompting a StepStone employee to note that, statistically, children are more likely to be molested by family members than strangers.

“I think there’s a lot of misconceptions – you keep saying ‘these kids’ – there’s a lot of labels being thrown on them,” Parks said after being asked if she would be comfortable with her family living next door one of StepStone’s group homes. She said she would and added, “I really understand the population we work with. We don’t work with kids that are active drug users or in treatment or need rehabilitation. … I know the services (we provide), and I know these kids.”

One resident prepared for the case he made by submitting open records requests to the Murray Police Department and the Calloway County Sheriff’s Office, asking for reports on service calls to the boys’ home on Back Street and the girls’ home on Robertson Road since Jan. 1.

“When we talk about ‘these kids,’ we’re referring to (Back Street and Robertson Road*),” the resident said. “From Jan. 1 this year until this past week, law enforcement’s been called to (Back Street) about 15-20 times. For walkaways, I think it’s (been) four times in the month of July we’ve had walkaways from that? That’s what they’re worried about. … Just last week, PD is investigating a robbery at Friendly Liquors at the corner of (Sycamore) and Fourth Street, and it’s suspected that the gentleman from (Back Street*) is the one that vandalized that facility. That’s what we’re talking about here today. Maybe we’re pissing you off using the wrong words, and I apologize for that.”

A review of the open records request reveals 17 calls to the Murray Police Department from the Back Street facility* this year, including seven calls for missing or runaway juveniles, six categorized as “out of control subject” and two fights. Three of the missing/runaway calls reported two missing juveniles.

“When was it on Back Street they had a fight and it was two of your clients that got into a fight over a Nutty Buddy?” the resident continued. “You’re ‘client’ at (the Back Street location*) started punching holes in the wall, ran outside to make a knife and saying, ‘I’m going to kill everyone.’ This is what we’re talking about. When we say ‘these kids,’ (we’re referring to) this small number of kids – I think we would agree – that are in these two homes because that’s our evidence.”

A few residents spoke of their direct experiences with kids in StepStone’s care. One was an officer with the Murray Police Department. He said, “With the calls for service that I’ve had to deal with at Back Street, if it was right down the neighborhood, there’s no way in hell I’d let my kids out the door.”

Another resident who works at a school in the Murray Independent School District, which is the district all StepStone residents attend, shared how her experiences over the last 20 years have colored her opinion.

“I see the group home kids,” the woman said. “I don’t have a problem with the group home kids, but I see it all the time. Adam (a StepStone employee) will tell you, I’m a good person. I have never mistreated those children ever. … I treat everybody just like I would like to be treated. But I’m gonna tell you right now, I can’t live, I don’t want to live with them. I love them, and I send them home. I will do anything for them at school, but will I be a nervous wreck living in the same neighborhood with them? Yes, I will.

“Back a long time ago, you just toilet papered your teacher’s houses when you found out where they lived. Well, we have stepped up a notch from toilet paper. We have break-ins; we have people getting hurt. I know. I know about it. … I cannot live in the neighborhood when I know what these kids do.”

But the majority of opinions voiced were not backed by factual evidence or personal experiences with the children in question.

Before suggesting the company find a more rural location, one woman said, “We don’t want our children exposed to that. I’m sorry; I know you work with them; you think they’re great. We don’t. We don’t know them. We don’t want to know them. We don’t want them living around our children.”

Shortly thereafter, another woman weighed in, saying she had a problem with StepStone relocating the facility to a “luxury home.”

“That home lists for $550,000,” she said. “That’s more than a lot of us have or have ever had, and you buying a luxury home for these kids, that’s setting false expectations for their future because they’re going to think that they can live in these luxury homes because that’s what they grew up in.”

A StepStone employee tried to interject, but Hempfling told her to not say anything. Then he thanked the woman for her comment and called on the next person to speak.

A man of retirement age said that he and his wife looked for a home in Murray for two and a half years before moving to the community, adding had they known that a residential treatment facility for adolescent boys would move within three blocks of it, they would not have bought a home in Southwest Villa.

Later in the meeting, another resident expressed concern that many people of advanced age call Southwest Villa home and said, “They could take out me and my husband easily.”

At one point, the crowd turned their questions to homeowners Terry and Angela Bogard, who were present at the meeting. Angela, who is also one of the realtors involved in the transaction, declined to answer questions related to the closing, noting her attorney advised against it.

“I think we need to start wrapping this up,” one resident said after 55 minutes. “It’s extremely hot in here, and we have vulnerable people in here; so, I do think we need to move this forward. I just want to say just a couple of things. First of all, you all knew what you were walking into today, and thank you because you came in knowing that everyone would have guns drawn, figuratively speaking. And you knew that. And it’s not easy to be in that position to hear those things, so I just want to acknowledge that and respect each of you for the position that you’re in and being present today.

“I don’t want to presume to speak for anybody else; I will speak for my family. But I will tell you all there’s nothing you all can say that will make me want you to move to that house. There is NOTHING you can say that will change my mind.”

With that, the room erupted in applause.

Earlier in the meeting, Imes suggested that the company extend the community the courtesy of scheduling another meeting to be held in Murray and, again, offered the use of the fiscal courtroom. When pressed by audience members at the end of the meeting, Hempfling would not commit to scheduling a follow-up meeting in Calloway County.

After the meeting, Pruitt texted the following statement, “I can’t comment because of possible litigation. However, I can say Southwest Villa residents opposing the for profit corporate facility had a strong turnout. I think the turnout will be a positive influence on pre-litigation negotiations.”

*Out of concern for the safety of the children living in the homes, the street numbers of the Back Street and Robertson Road facilities were removed from this article on Aug. 2, 2023, at the request of BrightSpring Health Services.

Sentinel Staff

Jessica Paine
I’m Jessica Paine, founder of The Murray Sentinel. You may know me from my time as a citizen journalist, running the Calloway Covid-19 Count page on Facebook, or you may be familiar with my more recent work for another local news outlet. Being that I’m “from here,” you may have known me since I was “knee-high to a grasshopper,” although you knew me as Jessica Jones. But whether you know me or not, I’m glad you found your way here.

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