8421 Pritcher Road, Lithia, FL 33547
help emotionally disturbed teenage girls by providing a stable christian living environment that includes positive self motivation by working on a farm and becoming educated.
Rehabilitation efforts revolve around hard work on the farm and grounds. The school does not practice corporal punishment or peer restraint.
However, girls who once attended the program said they were intimidated by school officials to overstate its success and downplay problems, including complaints of medical neglect.
In 2009, four house parents filed a report with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office stating concerns about how school director Cindy Churchill dealt with medical emergencies, including a girl who burned her eyebrows off when she was lighting a pilot light on the stove. Churchill used her own prescription cream instead of sending her to a doctor.
In an email to the Times, Churchill said the house parents lied and exaggerated “in order to hurt this ministry and me personally.” She noted that state investigators found no evidence of neglect.
Churchill wrote that programs like hers are often the target of false accusations.
“I have girls who have made false allegations against parents, former boyfriends and neighbors and later admitted that they made it up,” she wrote.
Cayla Eidson, who was enrolled at Steppin' Stone between 2007 and 2009, said she and other girls were well taken care of. She said she has gone back and visited the home since she left.
Courtney Grady, 19
Grady, mentioned in the 2009 sheriff’s report as a victim of Churchill’s medical neglect, said the school director sat in on an interview with police. She said she felt pressured by her presence.
Annual tuition for first year
Most of the religious group homes reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times are nonprofit organizations and must file financial information each year with the IRS. The Times collected these public records, which reveal income and expenses and other basic information about each organization. In some cases, the forms could not be found.
Tax information for 2010:
($762,946 in prior year)
Early, serious allegations ended in a verified finding of sexual molestation in 1994 and verified allegations of substance misuse in 1997. No evidence was found to support a 2009 complaint.
DCF abuse or neglect investigations
DCF verified cases
Maltreatment types reported
This residential program for at-risk girls was started in 1973 by a Ed and Lois Keiser, a couple affectionately known as Grandma and Grandpa. In 1984, when other Christian homes proposed a religious exemption to escape licensing, Steppin’ Stone Farm sent a message of opposition, in favor of licensing for all facilities: “In order to secure the safety of every child, a license is necessary.”
Mrs. Keiser died in 1991, preceded in death by her husband, and Cindy Churchill, who originally entered the program as a teenage runaway, took over as executive director in 1991.
By 1995, the earliest record DCF could provide of FACCCA members, Steppin’ Stone had registered for the religious exemption its founders had once opposed.
DCF lists two abuse investigations with verified findings — in 1994, sexual molestation, and in 1997, substance misuse.
director, executive director
According to the school's website, executive director Cynthia Churchill was "rebellious, using drugs and not attending school" before her parents sent her to the farm. Churchill has been executive director since 1991. "I love this ministry," she said. "It saved my life and that is why I am still here. Fortunately we do have a lot of girls and families who appreciate what we are doing."
former house parent
The former house parent included this in a statement she made to police in 2009:
“THE PROGRAM DOES NOT WORK. Cindy tells the parents we‘re trained in dealing with drug withdrawal and rehabilitation — WE’RE NOT. Also, we are not meeting the minimum standards of FACCCA, who is supposed to be governing Stepping Stone.”
According to this group home's tax form for 2010:
Group home profile last updated: Dec. 7, 2012, 1:49 p.m.