How youth support staff are using their sleuthing skills to connect teens with family

Youth who find themselves at an emergency youth centre in St. Catherine's, Ont., have been taking part in a unique program in which staff scour government records and databases to find family members who have gone missing from the teens' lives.

The Eternal Roots program aims to provide a support network into adulthood

'I've heard my job described as like a private investigator,' says Jackie Winger. Until recently, she was an Eternal Roots worker at the RAFT, an emergency youth shelter in St. Catharines, Ont., helping residents find lost family members. (Hit Play Productions)
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A new CBC Docs POV documentary profiles a bold initiative that helps young adults at an Ontario shelter connect to lost family members. 

Next of Kin features Eternal Roots​, a program run by the St. Catharines, Ont., non-profit Resource Association For Teens (RAFT).

"The idea behind the program is to try and connect youth with a support network," Nadine Pequeneza, the documentary's director, told The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

Finding family members for those who have no family left can be a tough job. But the outcome can be incredible. 1:58

"Kids that end up at the RAFT, they come from broken families, typically. And they really don't have any sort of social network around them — often they've dropped out of school, they're not working, so they don't have any context to build that network," Pequeneza said.

Next of Kin Director Nadine Pequeneza says even though it meeting family can complicated, the Eternal Roots program has given some form of a support system. (Dan Abramovici Photography)

Staff search through government records and databases, social media networks, phone directories and newspaper obituaries, hoping to find a lead that can result in a family connection.

After seeing youth cycle through care and the shelter, former Eternal Roots staffer Jackie Winger said she realized the importance of connecting to someone who wasn't paid support — available only during weekday work hours.

It was Winger's goal to find, even just one person to, call and check in on a youth at the shelter.

"Just to say, 'Hey, I'm interested in what's going on with you and I really am glad you're in the world, and I want you to know that you're valued,'" Winger said. 

"Even if we can connect them with one person, it makes all the difference in the world."

A 'family finder' discusses the lengths she often goes to in finding youth's family members - obituaries offer a lot of information 0:44

As family dynamics can be complicated, RAFT workers don't always find a happy ending for the youth in the shelter.

But Pequeneza said the Eternal Roots program works in collaboration with other programs run by the shelter to support youth and their needs.

"It's difficult to say that any one program is going to provide the solution in a young person's life when it is so complicated," she said.

With youth grappling with so many issues like housing, getting back into school and mental health issues, Pequeneza said, "you need a whole raft of programs."

"It's very hard for young people to get mental health help and services that they need."

CBC POV's Next of Kin airs on Nov. 9, 2018 at 9 p.m. on CBC-TV

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.


Produced by Karin Marley.

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