The Connect Team: Making Connections with Vulnerable Youth

Young people face a variety of challenges during adolescence which can have an enormous impact on their lives. These challenges – along with experiencing rapid physical, cognitive and social-emotional changes – influence their future health and well-being.

We are Eastern Health’s Connect Team and the young people with whom we work have the added complication of navigating through these challenging years with complex mental health and addictions issues.

Meet “Hailey”

Let’s look at a fictional example of a young person to give you a better idea of what we do. Let’s call this client “Hailey,” a 17-year-old who has been experiencing homelessness for close to a year.

She was just 7 years old when she was removed from her mother and placed in foster care. She had been subjected to domestic violence and intense emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her mother and step-father, who struggled with their own substance abuse issues.

Traumatized and heartbroken, “Hailey” was placed into her first foster home. Once she was officially in the child welfare system, she experienced continuous instability, leading to countless broken attachments. She developed significant mental health issues, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms (PTSD).

By the time “Hailey” had run away from her last foster home and decided to sign herself out of care, she was 16 years old. By then, she had stayed in four foster homes and a long-term group home. She had been enrolled in several schools; gotten in trouble with the law; had five different child welfare workers; a variety of different therapists; and multiple diagnoses. She would get evicted from every board and lodging arrangement and often couch surfed, or stayed in emergency shelters when she ran out of friends to stay with.

“Hailey” also became involved in a physical and emotionally abusive relationship and became addicted to marijuana and alcohol. “Hailey” says she wants something different for her life but she does not know where to start.

Teens like “Hailey” have experienced victimization, exploitation and trauma. There is a reluctance to engage in and/or a quickness to drop out of services. We sometimes see that young people seem suspicious of service providers’ intentions.

To cope with emotional stress, “Hailey” and other youth can often rely on maladaptive coping methods such as self-injury, which often fuels further emotional issues. These issues can directly influence young people’s ability and/or motivation to obtain stable housing, develop permanent connections, focus on education and employment and enhance their own social-emotional well-being. The lasting effects of trauma can be attachment/relationship difficulties, limited life/social skills, inappropriate boundaries, lower self-concept and difficulties in coping.

Unfortunately, a story like “Hailey’s” is not uncommon among referrals received by our team and we are available to assist youth like “Hailey,” their families, and their service providers to navigate these challenges.

Our team

Our team is made up of a variety of members within Eastern Health’s Mental Health and Addictions Program. Our mission is to work with youth in collaboration with their families and service providers to enhance that person’s life at home, in school and in the community.

(l-r) Alisha Vardon, child and youth care counselors (CYCs), Nicole Butler, child and youth care counselors (CYCs), Angela Slaney, clinical lead and provincial youth corrections mental health coordinator, Tara Earle, regional mental health resource coordinator, and Aimee Power, adolescent addictions counsellor. Missing from photo: Andrea Sweeney, program manager.

Making connections, building relationships

In working with young people like “Hailey,” it can be easy to focus on their issues or problems that they need to overcome or what goal they need to accomplish. While being sensitive and responsive to these realities is important, it is not what drives our team’s engagement with young people.

As members of Eastern Health’s Connect team, we are driven by the individual youth’s needs, tailored to the young person’s developmental stage while recognizing and embracing a young person’s strengths, abilities, talents and capacities. Our team looks at the connections between trauma, mental health and substance use while offering supports and strategies aimed at meeting their goals. This approach helps the clients to build a safe and trusting relationship.

Often times, when youth first meet with us, they provide little information about themselves or their past and conversation may be minimal. As times goes on, they begin to very slowly connect with us.

Group meeting room, (l-r) Nicole Butler, Tara Earle and Angela Slaney

We often work with youth like “Hailey”, with a history of trauma, and who may have difficulty with trust and building relationships. Our team’s goal is to help clients to feel connected and safe so that they are able to start working on these areas. The relationship developed between the young people and our team is the foundation for all our other work.

Meeting teens where they are is often the key to our success. We all refer to our cars as our “office on wheels.” Our hope is that through this level of engagement, we can then connect them to other services in the community.

Alisha Vardon with her office on wheels

What we do

At Connect we provide:

  • short-term intensive case management.
  • child and youth care intervention.
  • consultation and coordinated service planning.
  • substance use counselling, education, assessment and family support.
  • pre and post residential treatment support for Tuckamore Treatment Centre and Hope Valley (as well as for out of province residential treatment),
  • client advocacy.
  • support youth in building positive community connections.
  • provide training to service providers working with our clients.

Depending on the needs of the youth, we can work on safe and stable housing, life skills, education, employment, and emotional wellness.

Referral Criteria

Young people can be referred to the Connect Team for case coordination and/or substance use counselling. To be eligible for the Connect Team’s collaborative planning and case coordination services, we refer to the following criteria:

  • A youth between the ages of 12 and 18 who has one or more mental health diagnoses and/or behavioural or social-emotional needs that are seriously impacting their functioning and pose a risk of harm to self/others.
  • Multiple system involvement (e.g. Youth Services, Youth Corrections, Child Welfare, Psychiatry, counselling, etc.) yet may not have engaged consistently with any of them, therefore poses a treatment challenge.
  • History of, or imminent risk of, out of home placement-may include hospital, residential treatment, custody, foster care, homelessness.
  • Experiences challenges related to such things as community, school, family, peers and requires services from multiple sectors and/or professionals.
  • Service providers struggling with connecting/coordinating services, and/or meeting youth and family’s needs with existing resources.

A referral to our Adolescent Addictions Counsellor may be appropriate for:

  • Youth who may be struggling with substance use/abuse.
  • Youth awaiting and/or discharging from residential treatment.
  • Concerned parents/family affected by a youth’s substance use/abuse.

Andrea Sweeney, program manager

Contact Us

We welcome any calls from youth, families and/or service providers to further discuss how our team can be of assistance. The mental health and addictions referral form is used to refer to the Connect Team. Referrals are assessed through Child and Adolescent Central Intake and can be faxed to (709) 777-2211. You can also call our team directly at (709) 777-2148 for more information or visit the Connect Team section on our website

This story was written by Tara Earle, regional mental health resource coordinator, Andrea Sweeney, program manager, Aimee Power, adolescent addictions counsellor, and Angela Slaney, clinical lead and provincial youth corrections mental health coordinator, at Eastern Health.

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