Family & Kinship Strengthening Q&A

At this year's National Symposium on Solutions to End Youth Homelessness, we promised that questions for panelists would be answered online if they weren't answered in person! See below for responses to the most frequently asked questions (in this case, two emerged over and over again) about family & kinship strengthening.

Q:  If parents aren’t a part of the support system for youth and are the “problem” - what approach of help would you give to youth?

A: Family and kinship strengthening programs support youth in nurturing their “natural” supports, or the adults in their lives who are sources of support and care in some way, shape, or form. If parents (whether they are biological, adoptive, or foster parents) are not a safe or helpful resource for youth, perhaps there is a relative a neighbor, a teacher, a coach, or the parent of a friend who has been a source of support. Family and kinship strengthening programs can help explore and develop that support. They can also help young adults process what type of relationship they want with parents, and how they are impacted by their parental relationships. At its core, family and kinship strengthening is youth-centered and driven by youth’s own definition of family and what the supports they want look like, while recognizing that families are dynamic and often not monolithically “good” or “bad.”  

Q: What are some lessons learned about how to give a youth toward reunification or how to determine when it’s simply not a viable idea?

To answer this, we turned to Justin Sage-Passant, a leader in family and kinship strengthening work in Toronto. Justin responded:

I’d say that a key piece in supporting a youth with family reunification is to be client led and collaborative in the approach. This means that:

  • The youth experiencing, or at risk of homelessness has the right to define and identify their family and chosen supports, and how family members, chosen supports and significant others should be involved.

  • Family, chosen supports and social networks are recognized as potential resources to facilitate the prevention and ending of a youth’s homelessness experience.

  • Families, chosen supports and significant others are acknowledged as partners and the approach is responsive to their need for inclusion, guidance and support.

The worker’s ability to engage in the conversation about family and significant relationship is of course critically important. In my experience there is no one ‘model’ or ‘intervention’ for how this is done effectively. I think it comes down to a person’s attitude and approach towards the young person and their family/chosen supports. Some key attitudinal pieces for me have been:

  • Warmth and calmness

  • Dependability

  • A genuine interest in the person and their family/chosen supports

  • A non-blaming, non-adversarial approach where the trust of the young person is gained without aligning with the youth and blaming the parents

  • An ability to listen and allow people the opportunity to vent

  • Ability to hear the ‘bad stories’ of hurt or abuse and be willing to not let that end the conversation

  • A sense of humor

  • Recognizing that parents/family members, chosen supports are doing the best that they can given their skill, knowledge and capacity in the context of individual, interpersonal and systemic, structural factors. In most cases the parent/family/supports have a genuine desire to adequately care for the child's needs.

Reluctance or apprehension to discuss family relationships should  not be recognized  as resistance, but as a natural response that may be serving a protective purpose (for the youth and/or their family). I’ve found that we have to be creative and patient to work with reluctance, not against it….and to not let the reluctance exclude the youth from an opportunity to explore opportunity for relationship strengthening and/or reunification.

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Thank you Justin Sage-Passant, Family & Natural Supports Coordinator at Covenant House Toronto, for your help responding these questions and your ongoing support of family and kinship strengthening work across North America.