Making the Connection

High Risk Youth Unit Edmonton and Area Child and Family Services, Region 6

Historically, youth have not considered government departments to be “out-of-the-box” thinkers or innovators. However, a new project that reaches out to high-risk youth in Edmonton, Alberta, has challenged this perception. Edmonton and Area Child and Family Services (part of the Government of Alberta’s Ministry of Children’s Services) has a High Risk Youth Unit (called “LYNC”—Linking Youth Needing Change) that is leading the way in providing innovative services to this population.

The High Risk Youth Unit started operating on November 1, 2005, after a series of forums delivered the clear message that traditional services and the way in which they have been delivered have not been adequate in meeting the needs of youth. Further, young people felt very disconnected from “the system”, a situation resulting in frustration for all involved: youth, case workers, services providers, and the community.

The youth were most vocal about relationships. Even high-risk youth do want connections with adults, but they did not see their case workers as necessarily acting in their best interests. In general, if a young person had a positive relationship with a case worker, he or she perceived the system in a positive light, but if the relationship was negative, the whole system was seen as negative.

The Ministry supported the creation of two High Risk Youth Projects (Edmonton and Calgary). Work quickly started on developing a creative way to reach this challenging population in an effort to meet their needs and make services more relevant to their circumstances. In line with a model developed in Edmonton a few years earlier, three case workers with caseloads capped at 15 individuals, as well as youth workers, are attached to the High Risk Youth Unit (HRYU) to increase the amount of face-to-face contact and to help young people access various services in the community. The focus is very much on building a relationship to encourage them to be open to allowing an adult into their lonely and troubled world. Much patience in required, as well as working through a testing phase, typical of most youth who want to know they will not be abandoned or rejected given their previous life experiences.

The unit uses a harm reduction and strength-based/resiliency approach to engage youth in making their own decisions and to build on their talents and gifts. The intent is to make the philosophical shift from “doing to” to “doing with”. Young people are not pressured to stay in particular placements or to participate in specific programs. Rather, the focus is on the relationship, on developing safety plans, and on contracting to maintain open lines of communication.

A crucial part of the program is the involvement with community and service agencies. Case workers cannot work in isolation. There are close ties with street-level outreach organizations as well as with agencies that provide a number of key services. Much success has been realized in finding common ground and in giving the message that youths have a team of people working to help them be safe and make positive changes in their lives. Agency staff and community members also work with Child and Family Services, Region 6, in guiding the project as part of a steering committee. Some are involved in developing flexible programs to better meet the needs of the high-risk youth, while others participate in a Multi-Disciplinary Consultation Team that offers a forum for Edmonton case workers to discuss difficulties they are facing when working with a challenging youth.

The response from young people has been very positive. A vast majority call the case workers, youth workers, and their community supports frequently and feel they have a network to help them work through their struggles. The high-risk youth, who have typically been referred to as “the disconnected”, are now finding a challenge to their view of the world as hostile and isolated. They are discovering new opportunities and belief in themselves, as well as realizing that it might be good to have people in their lives who care about them and worry about them being safe.