Family reconnection (and reunification) for homeless youth is an intervention that offers individual and family support for young people who become, or are at risk of becoming, homeless. It is a client-driven case-management approach that seeks to identify and nurture opportunities to strengthen relationships and resolve conflicts between young people who leave home and their caregivers. Working with young people who are interested in developing healthier relationships with their families, staff offer individual and family counselling, family mediation, referrals to other agencies and services, psychiatric assessments, psychological assessments for learning disabilities, as well as accompaniment and advocacy assistance. There are examples of effective programs that support family reconnection in Canada, Australia (the Reconnect program) and the United Kingdom (Scotland program, Mediation UK; Local Authorities’ Homelessness Strategies).
There is no doubt that for many street youth, reconciling with families is not possible, nor would it be safe. One must consider that research identifies a sizeable percentage of street youth who experience family conflict and who do not come from abusive family backgrounds. There is extensive research in Canada and the United States that points to the fact that the majority of street youth come from homes where there were high levels of physical, sexual and emotional abuse, interpersonal violence and assault, parental neglect and exposure to domestic violence, etc. Research also consistently tells us that a high percentage – between 40 and 50 - of young people who become homeless have had some involvement with child protection services, including foster care, group home placements and/or youth custodial centres. These aren’t young people leaving home for frivolous reasons. And for many of these youth, there are no homes to go back to.
While it is unfortunately true that for many homeless youth, relations with family members are profoundly damaged and irredeemable. At the same time, this is not true for all young people who become homeless. Many leave home because of family conflict, but the conflict may not reflect abusive relations. In such cases, family mediation may help repair or lesson the conflict. In addition, even if one comes from a household characterized by abuse does not mean that there are no healthy or redeemable relations within the family, important social relations that may be helpful to the young person in question.
An effective strategy that supports homeless youth moving towards self-sufficiency must necessarily start with a focus on the needs and protection of the young person in question, but at the same time need not ignore the potential significance of family relations. In fact, any healthy self-sufficient adolescent or adult depends on others, including friends, co-workers, other adults and community members. For many, linkages with family will become part of this web of support, and self sufficiency may be achieved by reconnecting with relatives and potentially reconciling damaged relationships.
There is no single or set outcome expected from family reunification efforts. Young people may improve their relationships with family members to the point of being able to return home. For others, moving back home is not possible or advisable, but moving back to the community with the support of family members may be a realistic goal. For others still, there may be no significant improvement in relations with family, but young people may be helped to reconcile themselves to this fact, allowing them to move forward in their lives in a meaningful way.
The effectiveness and underlying logic of program-based family mediation and reconnection models suggests that a more ambitious application of the basic tenets of the program is possible when implemented more broadly at a ‘systems level'. That is, in contrast to developing an agency-based program or response, it is possible to approach the issue from a more integrated early intervention system approach that includes common assessment, centralized intake and case management, and in doing so brings together a range of services and approaches that work across the street youth sector, and ideally, engage with programs, services and institutions ‘upstream’ (that is, before the young person becomes homeless). No young person should access emergency shelters and supports without undergoing an assessment to determine the potential for family reunification.
Scaling up family reunification programming can thus be seen as a key preventive approach to youth homelessness. There are several key features to an integrated, systems level approach to family reconnection.
- Systems level approaches require strong institutional support by all levels of government, ensuring that family reconnection programming is widely available across jurisdictions. In other words, young people should have access to such interventions wherever they live.
- Programming requires systems-based cross-sectoral collaboration between child protection services, the education system, the mental health sector, housing, settlement and corrections, for instance.
- A prevention and early intervention model requires an integrated jurisdictional approach with strong communication links, so that appropriate and timely interventions can take place.
- Finally, an intervention program such as Family Reconnect must be widely available - and in some ways targeted – to young people who are under the age of 16. The homelessness sector in Canada is largely reactive, and is designed to serve young people who are 16 and older. A more effective approach would identify and begin preventive work with young people who are below that age threshold.
In both Australia and the UK, family connection is not simply a program model, but more significantly is seen as a philosophy underlying their response to youth homelessness. The key here is that family intervention is built in to their integrated systems approaches, and in the case of Australia, has been scaled up to be a national program. Both of these examples point to the possibility of moving beyond a program based model, to an integrated systems approach in Canada.