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A different response in Elm Grove: ‘Am I going to be able to love on those kids?’

MURRAY – StepStone Family and Youth Services is on a quest to relocate a group home for boys it currently operates on Back Street; however, between zoning restrictions and pushback from the community, the company has not been successful in previous attempts to move the home to another location in town. Now, StepStone has set its sights on a property six miles outside of the city limits in Elm Grove. Monday night, the company held a public meeting at the Miller Courthouse Annex on the potential relocation. 

StepStone specializes in providing services to youth in the foster care system, including qualified residential treatment programs (QRTPs). The for-profit company operates group homes for 10- to 17-year-olds nationwide; two of those homes, which can each house up to eight children, are located in Murray – a boys home on Back Street and a girls home on Robertson Road South.  

In July, StepStone held a similar meeting to discuss relocating the Back Street home to a property in the Southwest Villa subdivision on Enix Drive. Chris Hempfling, vice president of service excellence and stakeholder relations for Louisville-based BrightSpring Health Services, StepStone’s parent company, said that, because of the comments made during that meeting, the company did not feel that the children would be in a “safe, loving and supportive community” at that location.  

Around 40 residents from the Elm Grove and Faxon communities attended the meeting Monday night. Undoubtedly, the atmosphere was tense, and emotions were high; but overall, this meeting did not seem as contentious as the previous one. Several only voiced opposition to the move; however, in stark contrast to July, many acknowledged their reservations while also expressing empathy toward the plight of the children at the heart of the discussion and wanted to know more about how StepStone operates its group homes. 

While Hempfling led the meeting, Jeff Hardin, StepStone’s regional director over Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee, answered most of the questions. 

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here for the last one,” Hardin said, referring to the July meeting. “I really hope that this meeting tonight doesn’t look anything like the last meeting we had because that was not good by any means.”

Before Hardin could continue, a man interrupted him to ask “what kind of kids” would be living in the home. 

“I can’t give you a cut-and-dry answer for what kind of boys I would put in that home,” Hardin replied. “Generally, these are boys just like mine; unfortunately, they’ve lost their parents, and they don’t have a home to go to. So, I’ve got to give them one. So, yeah, do these boys have issues? Yeah.”

“I think we need to have an open discussion,” said Elm Grove resident Shanna Hodges. “I want to hear everything you have to say, but I want our questions answered. I just want it to be about transparency because our property is directly adjacent. When they run away, they’re gonna run right through those woods (to my house) or out on (KY) 94.”

The property in consideration – 169 Rockwood Road – is listed at $550,000 on realtor.com. The 3,245-square-foot home, which was built in 2015, sits on a 4.58-acre lot and boasts four bedrooms, three bathrooms and a bonus room. 

“It would be perfect,” said Hodges, who built the home with her husband Ronald. “We had goats out there. There’s a barn. … Maybe they can get a garden out there, maybe they can ride their bikes up and down that driveway. We raised five kids in that house. … I would love to have those boys as my neighbor; but they need parenting, and you guys are restricted by law as to the discipline and the tactics that you use. That’s why, when they run away, all you can do is call the cops. So, I’m concerned (that if they run away), they can come over to our house, and I have a 14-year-old daughter.”

Hodges also made a point to note that she was not passing judgment on the children StepStone serves. “I can guarantee that y’all’s kids have a lot bigger hearts than the people that say (on Facebook) they’re all ready to help – but they’re not here,” she added, presumably referring to a well-circulated Facebook post by the Sentinel about the July meeting that received 34,298 engagements, including 1,500 comments.

A resident asked why StepStone was looking at a property in the county, Hardin noted the company faced many challenges during previous attempts to relocate to another property in the City of Murray, primarily with zoning restrictions. In the county, that is not an issue. 

Remodeling the Back Street home was suggested. Hardin advised that idea was seriously considered, but the significant structural problems with the home were determined to be cost prohibitive to address.

“We were going to go big,” he said. “We were going to add a second story. We were going to completely remodel it, but it just wasn’t feasible.” 

Safety was undeniably among the residents’ concerns; however, decreasing property values and damage to or theft of personal property were the worries voiced by the majority of people who spoke. Lending credence to those fears, a man who lives next to the Back Street home came to share some of his experiences with the boys over years.

“It’s been nothing but problems,” the man said. “They throw rocks, punched the vinyl on my home, had them come and pile a bunch of wood up in my yard; it’s stuff like that constantly, going through the property at night. I see them up in the trees. I have to circle the block twice when I leave my home to see where they end up, and every time, they’re back at my house. … Now, I have to put cameras up, flood lights up, so I can spot them.”

“The story we just heard is over how many years? Ten?” Hardin asked the man, who acknowledged his examples spanned many years. “So, that’s a long story there; that wasn’t just last week.”

A man, who noted that he listens to the scanner “all the time,” said that law enforcement is called to the Back Street house nightly. Hardin denied that, replying, “The cops, thankfully, are not at our home every night. Do our boys run away at times? Certainly.”

Residents wanted to know about the policies and protocols in place, particularly those related to supervision and how staff respond when children leave the home without permission. Hardin advised that two staff members are always present at the home and noted that each child has an individualized supervision plan. 

“Our facility is not allowed to be locked down,” Hempfling added. “So, you have a normal foster home, then our facility would be a little bit higher (level of supervision); then you have a very high-level facility, and those are locked facilities.” He also noted that children who are deemed to be a harm to themselves or others are placed in the high-level facilities, not in StepStone’s group homes.

It is not StepStone’s policy for staff to “chase” after children, Hempfling advised, but they do call law enforcement when necessary. Calloway County Dispatch Director Nathan Baird spoke up, recalling his experiences as a dispatcher, receiving frequent calls for runaway juveniles to a former StepStone home on Cunningham Lane. He said it was not uncommon for the employees to be unaware of how long a child had been gone or what they were wearing when they left. 

Hardin said it has been five years since StepStone operated at that location, and since that time, the organization has made several changes to its “AWOL protocol,” including training employees on what information needs to be provided to law enforcement in those cases. 

“I want to be clear on one thing here – and you can look it up in regulations – we are not required to call the cops if our kids run away,” Hardin said. “(We do it) for safety because they’re children, and we want them to not get hurt or be in danger.” 

Calloway County Sheriff Nicky Knight was also present and offered a different perspective on the potential downfalls of relocating the home to the county. 

“We had been going so many times just to Robertson Road; it has slowed down,” the Sheriff said, referring to StepStone’s group home for girls, which, unlike the Back Street home, is in his jurisdiction. “It’s not every night, but I think you’re trying to put lipstick on something here that it’s not. That’s just my opinion. 

“I think it’s best in the city where the city’s got plenty of units to deal with it. Coming into the county, I’ve got two units out. We get a runaway juvenile; yeah, we’re gonna look for them just like (we would for any child). We’re gonna do our best, but I’ve got two units; other people in the county need my help, too. So, leave it in the city. We’ll be glad to help the city if we need to help the city, but the city can’t come all the way out there to where you’re going (to be) to help us. You see what I’m saying? Now, I’ve already said more than I came here to say.”

More than one person brought up a recent break-in at the Pockets gas station on South Fourth Street, noting a rumor that the suspects were residents of the Back Street home. StepStone employees denied that juveniles in their custody were responsible for the break-in and said that the Murray Police Department’s photographic evidence exonerated any Back Street residents from involvement in the crime.

“We continue to paint this picture of awfulness about these children, and it isn’t bad; all these kids doing awful things and tearing up property and running away, that’s really not the case,” Hardin said. “Typically, what you’re going to find – and, maybe some recent stuff – is we have one child that’s really not working out. They’re defiant. They’re not listening. They’re always doing something to get out, get in trouble, whatever it is; and, ultimately, we’re managing that behavior as best we can. It’s typically not a good fit for us either. So, we submit our notice to the state, and the child goes and lives somewhere else.” 

One woman wanted to know how many infractions a child was allowed before being moved to another facility.

“We don’t treat kids that way,” Hardin said. “We don’t have a rulebook that says, ‘If you run away twice, we’re going to kick you out,’ or, ‘If you don’t listen five times, we’re going to kick you out.’ We don’t do that to our children.”

Another woman asked about StepStone’s success rate with children returning to a regular foster home or being reunited with their family. Hardin acknowledged that, recently, it has not been good. When asked why that is, he said, “Because the children are so defiant, don’t want to participate in our therapy and our work to make the progress that they need to make. When they fail at our program, they will typically go to another similar program somewhere else.”

“Foster care is hard,” Hempfling added. “It’s a hard, hard system. None of us up here are going to blow smoke up anybody and say that we have a 100% success rate; that’s not happening in foster care.”

Before long, the residents turned the focus of their questions to the staff who work in the homes as caregivers. Hardin said that entry-level team members are paid $17 per hour; however, despite offering reasonable hourly wages, the turnover rate is high. “It’s a hard job,” he said.

Employees’ training requirements were also discussed. The primary certification required is safe crisis management training, which is where staff learn how to safely restrain children when necessary. In addition, Hardin explained that a new employee will spend their first three weeks learning their job responsibilities and shadowing experienced staff. After that period, employees go through additional trainings over the next three to six months; Hardin advised he did not have that information with him to be able to provide more details. 

“Do you have things for these children to be doing?” another woman asked. “Do you have security? Do you have monitoring? Do you have cameras on the houses? And these people that are going to be there, they’re not going to be teenagers? That’s the kind of stuff I want to know.”

“Our children are not just coming home after school and sitting in a house, doing nothing,” Hardin said. “We have a pretty rigorous schedule for our children because we’re trying to recreate discipline, which most of them have really never had. … We do provide them with the typical gaming and TV time. We go to bed early, and we wake up early. It’s very structured to create, for the most part, something they’ve never had.”

“I don’t want those boys stuck in that house,” Hodges said. “I would love for them to come hang out with us, but are they going to be able to do that? Am I going to be able to love on those kids?” 

“First of all, you were right,” Hardin said, referring to a comment Hodges made earlier that the entire meeting could have been avoided if someone with StepStone had reached out to talk to neighboring property owners initially. “We should’ve come to your house. We should’ve went to all the houses around there and sat down and had a talk about it. We were a little gun shy after the last meeting.”

“Well, we’re nicer out on the east side,” Hodges replied with a smile, bringing some levity to the tense discussion.

“Where it works really well,” Hardin explained, “is that I’ve got your number; you’ve got mine; we know you; we know everybody around there; and we communicate regularly. And all of the neighbors know that if they see someone, they know they’ve got someone to call so they can say, ‘Hey, one of your boys is walking down the street.’”

A mother of two toddlers asked Hardin how he would feel if he was in the residents’ position. He said he lives three houses down from a group home with his five-year-old twin boys. 

“I can walk down to that house at any time and talk to them about any concerns I have,” Hardin said. “So, personally, I don’t live in fear of these children hurting my children. I don’t think that we’ve had any single experience ever of our children wandering out and hurting other kids. They don’t do that.” 

As the meeting was wrapping up, Hardin made a comment while responding to a question that children do not stay in QRTPs long-term; typically, their placements only last three to six months. 

“That’s really all they’re there?” Hodges asked. “So, it’s just a rotating cycle?”

“Every one of them has a goal,” Hardin explained. “So, most of these children are not ‘return-to-parent’; they’re not ‘adoption’; most of them are going to be ‘emancipation’ or ‘independent living’. So, they’re either going to leave this facility and go to a foster home or maybe some kind of longer-term stay until they turn 18, or some of our older children – 16, 17 (years old) – they’ll go straight to an independent living program and, really, start to get prepared to live on their own.” 

“I will say it concerns me even more, though, that they have been adjudicated, but this is going to be the first stop before they go to something more permanent,” Hodges said, visibly upset. “I was really hoping that this was going to be more of a permanent thing.” 

Hempfling advised the attendees that staff would take their comments into consideration as they evaluate whether to pursue relocating to Rockwood Road. As of Friday afternoon, the Sentinel could not confirm whether StepStone has reached a final decision.

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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