Filmmaker Nadine Pequeneza’s new documentary NEXT OF KIN is a detective story in which the goal is not to catch a killer but to save a life. Two lives, in this case: Jacob and Tahylour’s.
60% of homeless youth have previously been in care.
The rate of PTSD among foster children is higher than war veterans.
More than 60,000 children across Canada have been separated from their families and placed in either foster care or group homes. When youth are discharged from the child welfare system, typically at age 19, they are often forced to face the world alone and with no support network. Compared to their peers, youth aging out of care do not fare well. Too often, they drop out of school, end up on welfare, in jail, or homeless. The rate of PTSD among foster children is higher than war veterans. Nearly 56 per cent of foster children drop out of high school, while 60 per cent of homeless youth have previously been in care.
But what if one family connection could alter their future? This documentary profiles an innovative program that aims to give young adults like Jacob and Tahylour a support network by searching for the family members they’ve never known.
The St. Catharines, Ontario non-profit organization RAFT (Resource Association For Teens) works to bridge the gap between child welfare and adulthood. RAFT’s family finding program is a bold, new initiative to help young adults find their biological parents and other family members. It’s a quest to give these young adults the family connection they never had. What happens at the end of this journey can be life-altering.
In NEXT OF KIN, RAFT social workers-turned-sleuths Jackie Winger and Amanda Elam begin their search by delving into Jacob and Tahylour’s memories: what can they recall about their family home, parents, neighbours? Next, they dig into government records and databases, navigate social media networks, and carefully search through school yearbooks, phone directories and newspaper obituaries. Any of these might offer leads that could bring Jacob and Tahylour one step closer to finding their biological families.
Twenty-one-year-old Jacob is at risk of returning to jail and losing his child if he doesn’t turn his life around. He ’s been homeless, in and out of jail, unemployed, and is now about to have his first child. He ’s never known his biological father or paternal family. His relationship with his mother and step-father has been turbulent. Reconnecting with his paternal family might help him turn things around. The film follows Jackie Winger as she tracks down Jacob ’s biological father ’s adoptive grandparents, his biological grandmother and, finally, his biological father. After eight months of searching, Jacob learns about his Indigenous background and family roots that began with the traumatizing experience of residential schools and group homes three generations earlier.
Twenty-four-year-old Tahylour is at risk of increasing self-harm and worsening depression. Ostracized by her mother, grandmother and aunts, she has never had a stable, loving family. Too ill to work or go to school, Tahylour is completely isolated, a young woman in desperate need of connection. The search for her biological father is especially challenging since her mother isn’t talking and her known family relations can’t, or won’t, answer, either. RAFT worker Amanda Elam looks to Tahylour’s mother’s life as a young woman pregnant with Tahylour. Maybe someone who knew her mom back then can offer clues about the identity of Tahylour’s father. Amanda’s investigation leads to a truth no one ever imagined.
This being real life, not every youth in the family finder program gets a Hollywood ending, but every youth for whom RAFT has found relatives ends up with a new understanding of who they are and where they came from. They finally have a complete picture of themselves that hopefully helps them to move forward. NEXT OF KIN is about the lasting scars of broken families and the urgent need to improve our child welfare system so children can grow up to lead healthy, productive lives.