CLEARWATER — Before the court motions, before the eviction threats, before the limo rides to TV studios, Kimberly Broffman was 6 months old, just a baby, moving into a new home.
It was February 2004, and her mother had been beaten during a home invasion. To help with healing, mother and daughter moved in with Judie and Jimmy Stottler, the mom's parents.
The Stottlers grew close to the little girl, an only child. But as mom Melanie Broffman recuperated, they said, her history of drug use returned. The Stottlers called the authorities and demanded she leave. They took custody of Kimberly.
With her mother gone, her father a mystery and no other relatives to speak of, Kimberly's living arrangement seemed simple. Except for this: She was breaking the law. And now her case has drawn national attention.
The Stottlers' home, under the management of the Lakes Homeowners Association, was designated 55-and-over. Children could live there for no more than 60 days a year.
The association, which said its bylaws worked to preserve the age-restricted community, wanted Kimberly gone. But the Stottlers' attempts to sell their house stalled. Kimberly had no place else to go.
In January 2007, Judie Stottler, 62, begged. "I support three people on an income of approximately $18,000.00 a year and we cannot afford to move anywhere without the (sale) of this home. We do not have any family to take us in therefore; we would be forced to be homeless," she wrote in a letter to the association. "Please understand that we are doing everything possible and we appreciate your understanding."
A month later, the association responded with a summons to court.
• • •
Spread across two years of court documents, the association's attorney, Monique Parker, has outlined the case against the Stottlers. The Lakes' restrictions are clear, she wrote, and legally acceptable under the Fair Housing Act. When the Stottlers moved in years before Kimberly's birth, after Judie inherited the home from her mother, the family signed in acknowledgement.
Just as clear, documents show, are the association's attempts to settle. In April 2005, the Stottlers promised that Kimberly would be gone in 18 months — enough time, they thought, to sell the house or await Broffman's return.
Kimberly's mother had been ordered into the PAR Village , a rehabilitation center. "She was only there a month and she fled," Judie Stottler said in a deposition.
Selling their home in a recession proved impossible, too, even as their starting price of $229,000 dipped by $20,000. Kimberly's move-out deadline passed.
The association filed its lawsuit against the Stottlers and other families in violation, asking for an injunction to enforce their neighborhood bylaws. Robert Eckard, a Palm Harbor lawyer angered by what he said was the association's bulldozing of a healthy family, represented the Stottlers for free.
• • •
A first-grader at Pinellas Central Elementary, Kimberly doesn't know much about the dispute. Nor does she ask. Her questions tend toward her missing mother, who the Stottlers say is sick and getting better. Broffman faces prosecution next month on a charge she battered her father.
With a Wednesday morning appearance on the Today show, a night drive to Tampa for an appearance on CNN Headline News and constant phone calls from reporters nationwide, the conflict is getting harder to hide. A viewer, for instance, saw the Today report and raised the possibility of offering rent-free accommodations.
Neighbors are divided over what to do.
"We all have rules we have to live by in society. When I moved in here, I knew the rules and I accepted them," neighbor Mike Hoffman said Wednesday. "It's tough, but I think they should find a new place to live. ... The doggone association has got a job to do, too. They can't turn their back on it."
Others aren't so dismissive of the Stottlers' dilemma.
"I know they're in a strange situation. If I was in a situation like that, I don't know what I would do. Dig in my heels, too, I guess," said Sonny Ebert, who lives down the block. "I know we have rules and regulations, but let's have some compassion."
As the lawsuit stretches through its second year, with no clear end in sight, it appears neither side plans to back down.
A motion filed on behalf of the association recently sought to order Kimberly out of the house, but was denied. The judge is awaiting the family law file from the year Kimberly moved in to determine if the custody order specified an address, a finding that could possibly lead to a waiver for the association. Case management conferences between attorneys are ongoing.
The Stottlers say their options are still slim. Their home, now listed at $129,000, has had one prospect in the last nine months, and foster care is still out of the question.
State officials say the process of taking a child from an established home would be hazardous for everyone involved.
"If you're that child's parents, giving the child away is an unfathomable position," said Department of Children and Families spokeswoman Erin Gillespie. "Foster care is a last resort, all the time. It's just not the best place to be for kids."
In her own 6-year-old way, Kimberly agrees. From the top of her pink bunk bed, in a room strewn with stuffed bears and plastic toys, she speaks her mind after a shy stretch of silence.
"This," she said, "is my home."
Drew Harwell can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4170.