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Christian rehabilitation program in East Hillsborough to close by end of year

Cindy Churchill, executive director of Steppin’ Stone Farm since 1991, came through the program as a teen runaway.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times (2009)

Cindy Churchill, executive director of Steppin’ Stone Farm since 1991, came through the program as a teen runaway.

LITHIA — After four decades of working with troubled girls, a Christian residential program in east Hillsborough says it will close by the end of the year due to a lack of parental support.

Steppin' Stone Farm executive director Cindy Churchill shared the decision earlier this week on the farm's website, blaming "societal issues" for the closure.

"This lack of parental support undermines what we can do with their daughters and undermines the program as a whole because of the effect it has on the families who are trying to comply," Churchill wrote. "We can't help girls who don't want to be here and have parents who just want us to babysit without any support or change on their part."

The move comes 14 months after the Tampa Bay Times included Steppin' Stone Farm in an investigation that revealed reports of abuse and neglect at homes and reform programs for teens that are exempt from state oversight for religious reasons. Under state law, the authority over those facilities is the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies (FACCCA), a private, nonprofit group.

Unlike other similar programs, Steppin' Stone Farm does not practice corporal punishment or peer restraint. However, girls who lived on the farm said they were intimidated by school officials to overstate its success and downplay problems, including complaints of medical neglect.

The farm was started in 1973 by Ed and Lois Keiser, a couple affectionately known as Grandma and Grandpa. In 1991, Churchill, who originally entered the program as a teenage runaway, took over as executive director.

On the farm's website, Churchill, who declined to talk to the Times, said the program originally surrendered its state license in 1984 and registered with FACCCA "so that our parents could directly give us the authority to continue to chase the girls if they ran away and keep taking them to church even though they were placed here involuntarily."

But with parents no longer cooperating, the program doesn't work, she wrote.

"This model, taking teenage girls involuntarily for a minimum one-year commitment within a Christian program, will not continue to work given the societal factors that I have just described," Churchill said. "Other ministries have tried this model, opening after us, and have already closed."

FACCCA officials were notified of the farm's plans to close a couple of weeks ago, said executive director Bryan "Buddy" Morrow.

"They are current on everything. It's a first-class operation,'' Morrow said. "But they decided to go a different direction."

Morrow said he hadn't heard of any other programs closing due to a lack of parental support.

If programs are closing, it's more likely due to financial issues, said Robert Friedman, professor emeritus in the department of child and family studies at the University of South Florida.

He said he is not familiar with Steppin' Stone Farm, but says parents these days typically want to be more involved.

"They are becoming less willing to just do what the program asks them to do without questioning it," Friedman said in an email. "They are also becoming more aware that abusive practices have been identified in programs around the country, and are becoming more cautious about placing their child."

Since the Times' investigation, two other similar reform programs, the Lighthouse of Northwest Florida and Camp Tracey in Glen St. Mary in North Florida, have also closed.

The investigation also prompted a statewide crackdown on illegal boarding schools and a DCF inspector general investigation into the illegal transfer of foster kids and state dollars to unlicensed homes. Officials at FACCCA strengthened its rules to limit the amount of time a child can be kept in seclusion and ban the use of handcuffs and other mechanical restraints.

Steppin' Stone Farm will continue working with the girls already enrolled in the program through the end of the year, Churchill wrote. The farm's assets will be liquidated, with sales proceeds going to Christian homes for abused and neglected children.

Times news researcher John Martin and staff writer Alexandra Zayas contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401.

Christian rehabilitation program in East Hillsborough to close by end of year 01/10/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 10, 2014 11:31pm]
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