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StepStone continues search to relocate boys’ group home

MURRAY – After two failed attempts to relocate the group home for boys it currently operates on Back Street, StepStone Family and Youth Services is hoping “the third time’s the charm.” The company is now looking at a property on Rockwood Road in Elm Grove and has scheduled a public meeting on the proposed relocation Monday, Oct. 16.

After the purchase of a home on Dogwood Drive fell through earlier this summer, StepStone pursued a property located on Enix Drive, in the Southwest Villa subdivision. On July 28, the company held a public meeting regarding the planned relocation at its regional office in Benton, Kentucky. Approximately 70 subdivision residents made the 27-mile trek to voice their opposition to the move. 

During that meeting, Calloway County Judge-Executive Kenny Imes called the company’s decision to hold the meeting in Benton on a Friday afternoon with only 10 days’ notice an insult, and he advised those in attendance that he made an offer, in writing, to let the company hold the meeting at the Calloway County Fiscal Court building; the company, however, rejected that offer. In contrast, Monday’s meeting will take place in the fiscal courtroom, at 201 South Fourth St., at 5:30 p.m.

StepStone is a for-profit company that specializes in providing qualified residential treatment services to children ages 10-17 who are in the state’s foster care system, also known as the Kentucky Foster Adoptive Caregiver Exchange Program, or FACES. The company, which is a subsidiary of BrightSpring Health Services, operates group homes for boys and girls across the commonwealth, including two in Murray – a home for boys currently located on Back Street and one for girls on Robertson Road. The Murray facilities only house up to eight children at a time.

Within days of the July meeting, StepStone announced it was no longer considering relocating to the Enix Drive property. At that time, the Sentinel talked to BrightSpring Vice President of Service Excellence and Stakeholder Relations Chris Hempfling about the company’s attempt to relocate the boys’ home and got his takeaways from the July meeting. The following is a transcript of that interview, which has been edited for clarity and length.

TMS: Why did StepStone choose to not proceed with relocating the boys’ home to the Enix Drive property?

Initially, we thought it was a good fit, at least the property, for the children we serve. Ultimately, for us, in any consideration we’re making, the safety and best interest of those children has to be first and foremost along with making sure that those children are in a safe, loving and supportive community; and because of the comments and the pushback, we just didn’t feel that it was the right placement for our children.

TMS: What about the Enix Drive location – the home, the property – was a good fit?

Hempfling: Partly because it was available; as you can imagine, when we think about placing eight – up to eight – boys, at least in the respect, we need a home with a decent amount of space with a decent amount of bedrooms and accommodations for the, up to, eight children in order for it: a, not to be incredibly cramped, and b, it’s a home that they want to come home to after school or extracurriculars or work. 

We’ve operated in the Purchase Area for many years at this point, so because we have operated for so long down there (in Murray), we would like to keep those operations in the area. As a result of that, we’re a bit geographically constrained on available houses in that area and that meets the needs of our children.

TMS: After hearing the Southwest Villa residents’ responses at the meeting on Friday (July 28), what do you think people should know about StepStone and the children you serve?

Hempfling: When we think about the overall mission of StepStone, our ultimate goal is to serve Kentucky’s most vulnerable population – children and youth who have been abused or neglected. In order to be able to achieve that, we want to provide them a loving home in a community that can work collectively to make sure that those children are safe, that they are healthy, that their overall well-being is first and foremost in order to, then, make sure that child is successful. That’s who we serve; that’s our goal.

When we think about those children as a whole, how a child got placed in foster care and then placed in one of our homes, ultimately, is really no fault of the child’s. In order for a child to be placed in foster care, a judge has determined that child has been an abused or neglected child. Ultimately, this child has been dealt an incredibly unfortunate hand to where they’re coming from a home that either abused or neglected them. 

I think one of the misconceptions out there was that we house children that are maybe in the juvenile justice system; that’s not our children. Our children are dependent children, determined by a judge to be abused and neglected. Ultimately, these children want what every single other child wants – they want to be able to go and play football on Friday night or they want to go to their high school proms or they want to just come home to a house that they know they’re going to get the love and support from either caregivers in that house or other members in that household. That’s ultimately the only thing these kids want. 

One of the other elements of why a child ends up here – you’ve probably seen this in the news as well – Kentucky as a whole has a huge shortage for foster homes throughout the entire state, and particularly a shortage of foster homes that are willing to open their doors to teenagers. Frankly, part of this is a commercial, too, because if there are any of your readers out there that are inclined to open their doors and to be able to love a child that sometimes may be a bit rough around the edges and to be able to see the potential in that child, we are always looking for foster parents. 

The Kentucky child welfare system is always looking for great foster parents to be able to meet the needs of (children in foster care), and I guarantee some of your readers are those folks that are able to open their doors and open their hearts in order to be able to care for the children that we serve. What that does, then, is it helps build a more robust system that meets the individualized needs that each one of our children has. 

I said it during the community meeting (on July 28), and I’ll say it here again; we cannot raise strong, productive members of society in our children if we don’t have the community support and backing in order to be able to accomplish that goal. I am a firm believer in ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ and in our work, that is so incredibly true. It really does take all parts of the community system to make sure that the child develops and grows and their well-being is met for their overall success.

TMS: Can you paint a picture of how a child would end up in one of StepStone’s group homes in Murray? What are the criteria for being in those homes?

Hempfling: These homes were actually a result of a federal law that was passed in 2018 and signed by President (Donald) Trump, at the time, called the Family First Preservation and Services Act. What that law was trying to accomplish was there was this recognition that children weren’t achieving permanency as quickly as they should once they enter a state’s foster care system. So, there was a substantial federal law that was passed in 2018, and as a result of that law, it developed these types of homes. 

These types of homes, then, are really there to provide enhanced comprehensive services and treatments to children who may be struggling with various issues. And the good thing about these homes is we provide specialized trauma-informed treatment that you generally won’t find in a standard foster home. On top of that, these homes – again, different than a normal foster home – these homes are staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every single day of the year. Through that staffing and through that treatment, we’re able to provide a number of heightened services in order to help ensure that they’re overcoming whatever challenges they may be facing in order to then move them towards reunification because, ultimately, that’s the primary goal that we’re always shooting for – how quickly and safely can we reunify the child with their primary caregiver. 

TMS: Several comments were made about criminal records. Do any of your kids have criminal records?

Hempfling: Some children that have come into our homes have had criminal records; that is accurate. Again, sometimes the children that are coming into foster care, as I talked about earlier, their home life may not have been the standard that we’d like to see with every child; and as a result of what happened in the home prior to them being placed in foster care, sometimes that impacts children differently. Is this the same for every child that comes into foster care? No. Is there a higher propensity for children in foster care to commit crimes? I have not ever seen statistics like that. 

But do some of our children have criminal histories? Yes, and when something like that happens, then we identify the reason why the child felt the need to do that and then provide them intensive support and services in order to help them understand that there are alternative options that can better serve the child and better serve the community.

TMS: So, when a child with a criminal history comes into one of your homes, their crimes have been completely adjudicated?

Hempfling: That’s absolutely correct. Building that out a little bit, if the child committed a serious enough crime to where they were incarcerated, that incarceration and the completion of whatever sentence would have to occur prior to that child coming into one of our placements. 

Family and Permanency Teams (which are under the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Service Division of Protection and Permanency) make decisions about which youth should and could be placed in a qualified residential treatment program, like one of our residential programs, based on individualized assessments. Our homes are designed to provide specialized trauma-informed treatment to, then, be able to serve and meet the needs based upon those individualized assessments. 

TMS: Where are the children in the Murray homes from (i.e., are they local or do they come from areas outside of the Purchase Area)?

Hempfling: The children come from all throughout Kentucky. Sometimes they come from northern parts or maybe eastern parts of the commonwealth, but we’ve also had residents in those homes that have also come from the Purchase Area. There’s really no one, kind of, type of child or geographic location where these children come from; it’s really based on the individualized needs of that child and of the availability of placements within the system. 

In August, StepStone started a fostering teenagers marketing campaign because the need, the system’s need, for foster families that are willing to, again, open their doors to teenagers is significant. Most people, when you think about fostering what you kind of lean towards is probably that 0-10 (year age group), but there’s a huge need for teenagers. 

There’s also some great opportunities and different opportunities when fostering a teenager in comparison to a younger child. I think about the examples I used earlier, with a teenager, you have opportunities like prom, marching band or whatever else that, like, I think about from my high school years, that you don’t necessarily get with a younger child. We’d love to have great families to support this population. 

But there are other ways that people can help. We have a close partnership with the Kentucky CASA program, the court-appointed special advocates. These are folks throughout Kentucky that help lift up the voice of the child during a dependency hearing. Again, it helps society to understand the importance of communities in our system to be able to ensure the overall success of the child. You don’t necessarily have to be a foster parent in order to be able to support the good work that’s happening in Kentucky’s child welfare system. At the same time, if people do want to be a foster parent, we welcome them with open arms. 

TMS: It is my understanding that StepStone backed out of a transaction to purchase a home on Dogwood Drive due to backlash from the neighborhood. Given that and the response of the Southwest Villa residents, is StepStone still looking to relocate the boys’ home? If so, what lessons have you learned from those previous experiences? 

Hempfling: Yes, we did look at a property on Dogwood Drive. Ultimately, we decided against that, mostly due to zoning requirements in the City of Murray. Because we are not moving forward on the Enix location, we are actively searching for a home in a great community that is welcoming to our children so that they can live and grow. 

And the lessons we learned – I think that is also an important question – my thoughts on that are that, while the property and location is extremely important, making sure that we have a good understanding of the surrounding community is just as important for that child’s development, as we’ve discussed, and for that child’s long-term success. So, yes, we need to find a good home, but we also need to find a neighborhood that supports all children. It is critically important for fulfilling our mission and serving the children in our homes. 

What the neighbors (from Southwest Villa) were talking about that makes their neighborhood so special – they were saying they trick-or-treat and have game nights – those are the exact same things we want for our kids.

TMS: Would you consider holding public meetings to find those neighborhoods?

Hempfling: We as an organization will really consider and evaluate all available options in order to meet the needs of our children. If that would involve a productive community meeting to talk about where the children could be best served, absolutely; we’d love participation in that. 

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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