Connecting for Stability: Understanding The Relatives and the Young People They Serve

As a community, we often talk about the young people who are the “most vulnerable” or who are at “high risk.” Admittedly, we don’t always know who exactly those young people are and what their experiences have been. And far too often, those labels become the only story we associate with them. We don’t always know how to get them the support and care they need to thrive and we don’t often recognize their strengths and capabilities.

The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the Charlotte Regional Data Trust partnered with The Relatives to better understand the young people they serve and the young people’s understanding of the effective components of The Relatives programs. The Relatives has worked closely with young people who are considered vulnerable and at risk since 1974. The study and partnership with The Relatives provides a deeper understanding of young people in our community who have some of the most complex challenges and who have experienced multiple risk factors that can jeopardize their success. It also points to the real strengths of young people who face realities many can’t imagine.

The study used data from the Charlotte Regional Data Trust (Data Trust; formerly the Institute of Social Capital) to link client data from The Relatives with other service systems and agencies in Charlotte-Mecklenburg to understand client systems and the impact of programs across service silos. The Data Trust provides a private and secure community infrastructure for data sharing. The Relatives client data was linked with:

  • Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
  • Mecklenburg County Child Welfare System (including abuse and neglect investigations and foster care)
  • Mecklenburg County Food and Nutrition Services
  • Crisis Assistance Ministry
  • Homeless Management Information Systems
  • Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office

The use of integrated data to examine patterns within, across, and between systems and supports, brought into focus the magnitude of the issues and barriers The Relatives clients face as they progressed through their youth, adolescence and transitioned into young adulthood. Importantly, we also combined integrated data with survey and qualitative research allowing us to identify and acknowledge the strengths of both the youth and elements of the programs that serve them.

The study with The Relatives highlighted five important takeaways about the ways in which our community can work together to support the young people in our community who need change the most.

Read the report here: The Relatives Synthesis Report

We found that:

  1. Mental health remains an ongoing need to support the success and stability of young people with complex challenges. The youth and young adults who used services at The Relatives were exposed to numerous traumatic events at an early age. The graph below (see Figure 1) shows the ways in which clients at The Relatives interacted with the child welfare system. The trauma experienced due to child welfare system involvement is closely tied to increased mental health needs and behavioral challenges (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022; Southerland et al., 2009). As critical as mental health is, it is often not the most important thing for young people seeking help. Basic needs for daily living are typically the priority.

How to strengthen support: Having access to on-site mental health services for young people as they engage across services and systems is one way to address ongoing mental health needs alongside other areas of need. The Relatives recently brought on a part-time mental health clinician to meet clients at The Relatives. Other community systems and programs can also grow this practice. Providing easy access to mental health services, regardless of insurance status, is key to widening mental health support for young people, especially those with complex challenges. Investments in mental health services can help young people address trauma and care for their mental health as they work towards their goals.

  1. The risk of involvement with the criminal justice system remains high. In addition to risk factors related to exposure to trauma and experiences in child welfare and foster care, clients of The Relatives had high rates of suspensions and school absences while attending Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Behavior associated with suspensions is often related to trauma and unaddressed mental health needs (Dierkhising et al., 2013) and students may behave in a disruptive or aggressive way when they feel that their safety is threatened. Suspensions, in particular, contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, and increase the risk of young people’s, especially Black young people’s, involvement with the criminal justice system (McCarter et al., 2020).

How to strengthen support: Enhance collaborations between law enforcement agencies, educational institutions, and agencies like The Relatives who serve young people with complex challenges. Ensure all partners know about the available criminal justice prevention services and work to share information to create a network of support around young people who need it. Explore ways to have trauma-informed resources and access to mental health services within these collaborations.

Arriving at a safe place, such as The Relatives, can allow young people to shift from a focus solely on survival to a focus on growth.

  1. The young people who come to The Relatives demonstrate strength, empowerment, and personal growth. Arriving at a safe place, such as The Relatives, can allow young people to shift from a focus solely on survival to a focus on growth. The survey results showed the strength and resilience of the young people at The Relatives. Among these strengths – as noted by Relatives staff – are determination to overcome obstacles; clarity on what they want and the ability to set goals and advocate for themselves to achieve what they want; and a resourcefulness to obtain the things they need. Survey responses also underscored the importance of empowerment as a way to support young people in recognizing and leveraging their strengths as they work towards their goals. Empowerment is especially important for young people who have experienced trauma and is a key factor in helping to heal from trauma (Bulanda & Johnson, 2016). Young people were able to enhance their strengths as they worked with The Relatives to build the life skills they need for a safe and successful transition into adulthood. This growth and increased self-confidence was a point of pride for many clients and allowed clients to demonstrate their strengths.

How to strengthen support: Grow the availability and capacity of safe places for young people to access support. Also important is recognizing that young people with complex challenges are more than the bad things that have happened to them. The young people at The Relatives bring with them a set of strengths they have developed as part of their lived experience. Find ways to help clients identify and build off those strengths. Additionally, empowerment is important and was another way the young people at The Relatives were able to demonstrate their strengths. In survey responses, clients expressed that their personal growth was tied to feeling empowered to make decisions. Agencies in Charlotte-Mecklenburg should continue to grow investment in empowerment-based models as ways to help young people address trauma as they grow into adults. These models can be paired with mental health services to further enhance stability.

  1. The Relatives acts as a surrogate family for the young people they serve and are a main source of support as clients transition into adulthood. One client summed up their experience with The Relatives stating that, “they showed me that stability was possible.” In addition, given the immense instability clients of The Relatives experienced while growing up, they may not have had a traditional family support structure. The Relatives serves in this familial role in many ways. Clients regularly expressed that the trust and relationships they built with staff at The Relatives helped make a difference for them. Relationships with trusted adults, especially long term connections, help to revive and establish social relationships that are important for positive youth development (Sheehan et al., 2022).

How to strengthen support: Recognize that many young people with complex challenges may not have had family support networks and need support and guidance to develop skills many of us take for granted. Be patient. Consider funding and implementing models such as peer support, where young people who have gone through similar complex challenges can help their peers navigate systems and programs, expand their connections, and use their strengths to reach goals.

“They showed me that stability was possible.”

  1. The Relatives is at the nexus of multi-system involvement and represents a starting point for community-wide initiatives that can make a difference. The study highlighted that clients of The Relatives are heavily involved with local systems in our community (see Figure 2). By the time clients get to The Relatives, they have likely engaged with several other systems and programs in the community, some of which, such as child welfare, criminal justice, and homelessness, are or reflect risk factors that are related to ongoing instability. While involvement with certain systems can negatively influence long term stability, it means there are also opportunities for more coordinated and stronger support across systems for young people with complex challenges.

    How to strengthen support: Charlotte-Mecklenburg has several important community-wide goals related to economic mobility, violence prevention, improved educational outcomes, and housing, among others. The study made it clear that The Relatives serves some of the most vulnerable young people in our community. Current initiatives should target resources to the clients of The Relatives and young people with similar experiences. It’s these young people who need support preparing a path for economic mobility, who are at risk of violence, who need educational support, and who need an affordable and safe place to stay as they transition into adulthood. The Relatives and other organizations that support youth and young adults are places where these initiatives can root and begin to make a difference.

The study with The Relatives reminds us that the young people in our community who have complex challenges are strong, but they need a comprehensive network of support to achieve stability. Finding ways to collaborate and invest in mental health, criminal justice prevention, and empowerment-based models can help young people be more stable. In addition, current initiatives should look to The Relatives as a place to target efforts to increase economic mobility, prevent violence, and improve educational and housing outcomes. It’s at The Relatives, and other organizations that are trusted by youth and young people, where these initiatives hold the potential to make a very real difference in the lives of young people in our community.

Read the report here: The Relatives Synthesis Report


  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Fast facts: Preventing adverse childhood experiences. USDHHS. Retrieved July 19 from
  • Bulanda, J., & Johnson, B. (2016). A trauma-informed model for empowerment programs targeting vulnerable youth. Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 33(4), 303-312.
  • Dierkhising, C. B., Ko, S. J., Woods-Jaeger, B., Briggs, E. C., Lee, R., & Pynoos, R. S. (2013). Trauma histories among justice-involved youth: Findings from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 4.
  • McCarter, S., Venkitasubramanian, K., & Bradshaw, K. (2020). Addressing the school-to-prison pipeline: Examining micro- and macro-level variables that affect school disengagement and subsequent felonies. Journal of Social Service Research, 46(3).
  • Sheehan, K., Bhatti, P. K., Yousuf, A., Rosenow, W., Roehler, D. R., Hazekamp, C., Wu, H. W., Orbuch, R., Bartell, T., Quinlan, K., & DiCara, J. (2022). Long-term effects of a community-based positive youth development program for black youth: Health, education, and financial well-being in adulthood. BMC Public Health, 22(1), 1-17.
  • Southerland, D., Casanueva, C. E., & Ringeisen, H. (2009). Young adult outcomes and mental health problems among transition age youth investigated for maltreatment during adolescence. Children and Youth Services Review, 31(9), 947-956.

Trish Hobson, Executive Director – The Relatives