ST. PETERSBURG — From the exterior, the group home for troubled foster teens looks no different than the other upscale homes that make up Lakewood Estates, an idyllic St. Petersburg neighborhood that abuts Boyd Hill Nature Preserve.
The home was opened by Sunshine Family Services in 2016 in a three-bedroom house with a screened-in pool. The nonprofit promised in its application for a childcare license to create “a positive nurturing” environment and to provide life skills for up to six boys between the ages of 13 and 17.
But the home has become a worry for some in the community of roughly 1,600 homes who feel a populated residential area is the wrong place to house teens with behavioral problems.
They point to records that show police have been called to the group home almost 350 times since it opened. And those who live nearby say they often see underage teens smoking tobacco, and sometimes marijuana, in the evening.
Those concerns hit a flashpoint last month after Taylor Carson, whose home backs onto the community golf course, reported to the police witnessing two teens from the home laughing as they used golf clubs to repeatedly strike a limpkin, a long-legged shorebird. Carson went outside and found the bird bloody and dead, a police report states.
The incident shocked residents, leading about 150 members of the neighborhood’s civic association to sign a letter calling on the Florida Department of Children and Families to relocate the home.
After an investigation, the St. Petersburg Police Department concluded there was no probable cause to make an arrest. One of the teens, 15, told a police officer that the bird had been hit by his golf ball and was so badly hurt they felt they should end the bird’s suffering, a police report shows. He denied that they were laughing and told police that the neighbor who witnessed the incident “lifted his shirt and flashed what appeared to be a handgun” when he confronted them.
The other teen, 14, declined to speak with police.
The death was also reported to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The bird is not a federally protected species, but is protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act. An agency officer spoke with the boys about the possible consequences for their actions, according to Officer Specialist Bryce Phillippi.
Barbara Najarian’s home is across the street from the home. A retiree, she moved to Lakewood from Naples to be closer to her daughter. The incident with the bird was witnessed by her son-in-law.
She often sees teens from the home smoking marijuana outside the home, she said. She said many neighbors felt sympathy for the boys because they have had troubled lives, but the attack on the bird has changed that for some.
“It’s a little scary,” she said. “If they will do that, what else will they do?”
Sunshine Family executive director Damion Butler referred questions to Connie Richards, a licensing specialist with the Department of Children and Families. She declined to comment.
In an email to one resident sent Oct. 16, Richards said the death of the bird was being investigated.
“The department takes this matter and all concerns regarding our providers very seriously,” Richards said in the email. “We appreciate when the community shares their experiences (good or bad) or concerns with us when it involves our youth.”
The vast majority of police calls to the home — more than 200 — were to report runaways, police records show. About 20 were for disorderly juveniles and another seven were classified as “arrests on warrants.” Fifteen calls were for reports of battery and another four for brawling.
The group home is required to have on-site adult supervision 24 hours a day. It charges $125 per child per day, the average rate for group home care.
Lakewood’s civic association was campaigning for the group home to be relocated long before the death of the bird.
Association president Judy Ellis has repeatedly reported issues with the home to both Eckerd Connects, the lead foster agency in Pinellas, and to the state.
She said problem children are just being “warehoused at the home,” not receiving the services they need and not being adequately supervised.
She denied that their campaign is a typical “not-in-my-backyard” effort, pointing out that there is another group home in Lakewood run by Sarasota nonprofit SailFuture. The group teaches youths sailing and has been a good neighbor, Ellis said.
She said the death of the bird has left neighbors more worried about the youths being placed at Sunshine Family.
“It’s just not a good fit,” said Ellis, who has led the association since 2006. “Everyone knows where a kid who hurts an animal is going.”
Department of Children and Families records show there were problems with supervision at one of Butler’s previous group homes.
In 2009, he was executive director of Tampa group home The Place when it was placed on a provisional license in 2009 due to concerns about lack of supervision, lack of accountability about a child’s whereabouts, conditions in the home and other issues. Two of the four children who stayed there jimmied a neighbor’s tractor and drove it around the neighborhood, according to a report.
The Place missed due dates to provide the state with a corrective action plan and its license expired.
“Licensing has serious concerns about the The Place House and will not issue a regular license unless significant improvements are made," a report stated.