Announcer: Welcome to the Adopting and Fostering Home Podcast. Whether your family has been on this journey for years or you’re just getting started, we’re here to support and encourage you along the way. And now your host, Lynette Ezell and Tera Melber.
Lynette Ezell: Welcome to the Adopting and Fostering Home Podcast. I’m Lynette Ezell here with Tera Melber, and today we’d like to welcome again Anna Palmer. Anna, thanks for being with us again.
Anna Palmer: Yeah, happy to do it.
Lynette Ezell: Anna and her husband are foster and adoptive parents, and Anna is the executive director of Crossroads NOLA, which is a nonprofit in New Orleans. You recruit, you develop, you support foster families from local churches, and your story has been fascinating.
Tera Melber: It is. So Anna, we would like for you to share with us about what Crossroads NOLA is and how it began.
Anna Palmer: Okay, sure. So several years ago, I guess six or seven years ago now, I was on staff at First Baptist Church in New Orleans. I was a missions minister, so part of my job in that role was to be aware of the various needs in our community and mobilize our congregation to meet those needs where we could do so effectively. So as part of that role, one of the things that happened was I got invited to a meeting by the Department of Children and Family Services had for pastors and church leaders and essentially their plea to us was this. We are in desperate need of foster families and you people, you pastors, you church leaders, y’all have pews full of really great families in your churches every weekend. But we don’t have access to them and we don’t think they understand this or know about this need. And at this time I had just adopted my oldest son so adoption was on my radar, but foster care really was not.
Anna Palmer: And so I left that meeting going, oh my gosh, they’re absolutely right. I can’t believe I’ve missed this, I can’t believe the church has missed this, because at that time there weren’t really any churches in the greater New Orleans area who, you know, doing anything to address this need. And so I going man, if I didn’t know about this, I know that our people don’t know about this. And we clearly have a Biblical mandate to care for the fatherless, and although children in foster care have living biological parents most of the time, they are effectively fatherless. They are wards of the state when they are in foster care. And so this is the church’s job. This is the church’s job, and so we have to do something. We can’t once our eyes are open. We can’t walk away from it.
Anna Palmer: And so we went back and we did a recruiting event at our church and we had five or six families step forward and say, yes, this is something God’s calling us to do. So we’ve recruited some families who were willing to support those who are going to foster. And then unfortunately, we had of those families, I think four of them, it took DCFS 18 months or more to get those families through the application process.
Lynette Ezell: Yeah, you lose families that way.
Anna Palmer: Right. Right. And so we realized very quickly we can’t really recruit families and then throw them into this system that’s not really, even though the system desperately needs them, the system isn’t really equipped to handle them. And so at that point it wasn’t a problem I was willing to walk away from, and I knew he had to stay engaged. And so at that point I began asking questions, trying to figure out and understand the system. And about that same time our church, First Baptist, had a partnership with Habitat for Humanity and a local nonprofit they had started in partnership with Habitat. They were building homes in the upper ward in New Orleans. That was a fantastic project that happened after Hurricane Katrina and went on for years and years.
Anna Palmer: But that project was wrapping up and the executive director was moving on and so they asked me to consider taking the nonprofit in addition to my role as missions minister. And I’m thinking, nah, I had just got this kid now. I’m a mom. I got this part time gig. I’m good. And I hate to admit it, but it took them coming to me two or three times before I finally gave them the old “I’ll pray about it.” It was really a way of saying “I’m just going to tell you no in two weeks.”
Anna Palmer: But when I opened myself up to that, it was within a couple of days that God really showed me this nonprofit vehicle is what you need to really mobilize the church to address the needs of the foster care system. And so that’s really what Crossroads NOLA became.
Anna Palmer: But long story short, I wrote a grant, got the grant, which means, okay, now I have to execute this plan we’ve laid out. And so I resigned actually from my position at First Baptist, but I told them I’m going to need to keep this office and this computer and so they were gracious and allowed me to do that and they continue to be. Our offices are still here even four or five years later and so they allowed me to stay and they continue to be just a fabulous support. But what we’ve done since then is we’ve gone out and recruited church partners from all over the greater New Orleans area. And so we, we have over 40 church partners in this area who allow us to come in and just talk to their folks about foster care and share about the need in our community and then mobilize people to respond to that need.
Anna Palmer: So we now have a nearly 50 foster families we’ve recruited from local churches and they’ve served well over a 150 of the most vulnerable children in our city here. And so we’re just excited really to be a part of what God’s doing in the city. And one of the things we learned really early on is how important it was to support those families. So when we recruit a family, we really make a commitment to them that they’re not going to foster alone. And so we walk them through that development process. We have a great partnership with Louisiana Baptist Children’s home. They have a social worker that’s very much part of our team, offices with us. And when we recruit a family, she writes the home study and so she walks with families, asking the tough questions, making sure families understand, look, foster cares about reunification first and foremost. What are the hard questions you want to go to God with before that happens to you, before you have a baby that you have loved and cared for, and now they’re being reunited with a biological family. So go ahead and ask God those hard questions now. And so that development processes is really important.
Anna Palmer: And then on the back end support. And one of the things we know is that, like I mentioned in the last podcast, we want our families to obviously love unconditionally, like Christ shows us, but we also want them to be competent in their parenting. And that parenting is childhood experienced trauma, which every child in foster care has, requires a certain set of knowledge and skills and we want to make sure that they have that. And so we offer trainings on trust based relational intervention or TPRI and it’s just been a powerful tool that gives caregivers the knowledge and skills they need to really help kids heal from the harm they’ve experienced.
Tera Melber: So can you give us a brief overview of what TBRI is? I know it involves a lot.
Anna Palmer: Yeah, it does involve a lot. But generally speaking, one of the reasons we love it is it’s a caregiving model as opposed to a clinical one. So really it takes someone like me, who doesn’t have any clinical background or experience and gives me the knowledge and skills that I need to bring healing. And so it’s evidence based, so it’s research backed by science. It’s attachment based, which means it’s about the relationship between the child and the caregiver and it’s all about connection. The primary purpose of TBRI is that a trauma caused by relationship, which is what most kids in foster care have experienced, whether it’s neglect or some type of abuse. Trauma called by relationship can only be healed through relationship. And so it really gives caregivers the ability to be that healing connection that kids need to overcome the trauma that they’ve experienced. And so it’s a lot about being proactive and proactive teaching of skills and strategies, but its basis is connection and building that bridge to the child’s heart, which ultimately helps you do things that bring the child’s brain, that upstairs brain or that prefrontal cortex in line and gives them that ability to regulate their emotions, regulate their behavior, and really ultimately just just heal.
Lynette Ezell: I love that because I know at our house, at the end of the day, we have six children. I don’t ever want to lose a relationship with one of my children. And so I love that the TBRI is a matter of the heart. It’s a matter of building a trusting relationship with a child that was not taught to trust early in their life.
Anna Palmer: Right? Yeah. And one of the things that’s kind of a bedrock of really all trauma informed care and TBRI as well is this idea of felt safety. So I think as adults, one of are the things that’s really hard is when they have this child and we’re going like, hey, you’ve been with us for months. Why are you still hoarding food? Or why are you so scared to go to sleep at night? We know they’re safe. We know there are laws, we know we’re not going to let anything happen to them. And we feel like they should know that too. But their previous experience did not tell them that. And so one of the things that’s important for kids from hard places is this idea of felt safety. So we had to put ourselves in their situation. And even sometimes when we don’t understand, to say, to figure out what that child needs to actually feel safe. But not just that they are safe, that they feel safe.
Anna Palmer: And so for a kid who experienced early neglect and is terrified of not having food, even though we can show them, look, the pantry’s full, the refrigerator’s full, I give you dinner every night, what don’t you understand, that it’s their brain, it’s their primitive brain that takes over and has them in that fear state. And so just doing simple things.
Anna Palmer: I know one of my little guys, I would literally be cooking dinner and he would come in from playing outside and he would say I’m hungry. And I would say, I mean like I’m about to fix your plate. I am dishing the hamburger meat into the taco shell. We are about to cross the finish line here. And I’d say I’m fixing your plate, and he’s day, but I’m hungry now. I’m like, what is the difference between now and two minutes? But to him, hungry now meant hungry now. There was a downstairs brain primitive fear response in him, and literally all I would have to do is say, you know what, here’s a granola bar or an apple or a handful of grapes. You can take that to tide you over, and half the time, by the time he got the grapes out, dinner was actually ready. He just needed to know he could have something right then. And so for some kids that means you may need to have a little bowl of filled up snacks or whatever. They may need to always have something on them, so that they know they have access to that.
Lynette Ezell: I have to have lots of extra in their lunchbox every day, because they never got over that.
Tera Melber: Even now, years later.
Lynette Ezell: Yeah, years later, I just did it this morning. They have to have at least two of everything in their lunchbox, which half of that’s coming back home. But they still, even as, they’re teenagers, and they still have to know that there’s plenty, that they can see it, that the mind has to see it, and every single day two of them want to know before they leave for school in the morning, what’s for dinner tonight? Now I’ve been cooking dinner for like 30 years and I’m tired, but I come up with something. The Lord is sweet every single day. But it’s important for them to know, it’s important for mine even as teenagers and I got when they were babies, that they can smell it when they come in the side door.
Tera Melber: I have one that just this morning said, he’s looking through his lunch box every single morning. And he looked at me this morning and he said, Mom, I know there’s stuff in here and plenty for me. I was just checking. And I know where he’s coming from. He doesn’t have to say, he gives me that look and I know what he’s thinking and he knows I know what he’s thinking, but it’s the continual seven years later still doing those same things. But it just grieves my soul, but I’m grateful that he’s come as far as he has. But it’s just hard to watch them go through that, but you know that every time that you do that and you reinforce that, there is felt safety in our home. It really solidifies his relationship at home to know Mom and Dad have got this. I can trust them. And every day that something like that happens, then it’s just a reiteration of I am safe.
Lynette Ezell: Well, you know, Anna, we were talking to you earlier when I was talking to a time before, you had talked about how New Orleans is probably one of the most traumatized cities in the United States. I know because of Katrina and those things that happened, but now you’re focused on bringing this TBRI training, not just to foster parents, but you’ve kind of broadened that scope. Is that correct?
Anna Palmer: Yeah, that’s correct. So we’ve recently created what we’re calling the Greater New Orleans Collaborative for Children. And it’s really an effort just to infuse across the system TBRI training and education and resources. Just really recognizing that there’s so many different people who were involved in the life of children in foster care and so we have case workers and judges and attorneys and all these folks who are, whether they’re providing direct care or they’re making decisions, it’s just really important that they understand what trauma does to children and how they can apply that information to whatever process or whatever piece of the puzzle they’re a part of. And so the goal is to really have a system that prioritizes the needs of children and a huge part of that is understanding how trauma has affected them and as a result of that, how we as the grownups in the situation need to react and respond and be proactive and make decisions in light of that information.
Lynette Ezell: Right. And when you have everybody on the same page and understanding the same information, then it provides consistency for the children.
Anna Palmer: Right? Absolutely. Absolutely. And that’s definitely what we’re after is that every child in foster care receives consistent, loving, trauma informed care from every part of the system.
Lynette Ezell: Are you getting a lot of cooperation with your judges and lawyers and CASA workers and everyone involved?
Anna Palmer: We are. One of the things that’s so great about TBRI is a lot of times when people hear that, especially people who are in this child welfare work, they hear about it and they go, this is what we’ve been missing. We’ve heard about the ACES Study and adverse experiences aren’t good for kids. We’ve heard some of this information about trauma, but we’ve never known, what do we do in light of that? And TBRI really takes best practices from several trauma informed care models and research and really just puts together this framework that really gives people the now what? And so we’ve had great responses from judges, from attorney, from CAS, from a variety of organizations across the system. So we’re really excited to have partners on board for this effort.
Lynette Ezell: When you bring in the TBRI training into a foster family or an adoptive family or when the workers began to see this, in your opinion, I’m just asking just for your personal opinion, how long do you think it takes before you begin to see the actions, the feelings, the emotions of a child who begin to shift a little bit toward more of a relational aspect?
Anna Palmer: Yeah. So that’s a great question. So let me just say here that one of the things that is so great about TBRI, but is simultaneously a challenge, is that, much like many things, it’s all about the caregiver’s ability to actually implement TBRI. And so when you have a caregiver who has, if they’ve experienced trauma in their past, they’ve worked through that and they have the capacity actually to remain calm and regulated themselves while the child is flipping out. Because I don’t know about you, but sometimes my child flips out and then I flip out and then he flips out a little more, and we get in this cycle of, I told my husband one time, he triggered me first.
Lynette Ezell: It’s his fault.
Anna Palmer: It was him. But the bottom line is when we understand what triggers us, that’s a huge part of knowing our own stuff and knowing where we need to do the work. So when a caregiver is able to implement TBRI and to have those healing interactions, we’ve had families who say, man, it was almost immediately we began to see growth and capacity, capacity building. And so I’m sure it’s obviously different for every child and depending on what type of trauma and how long that trauma persisted, it takes. For our family it was also pretty quickly and sometimes you would get one kind of issue resolved, and that would allow you to see and focus on another issue. So it’s an ongoing process and still to this day there are things that we work on and we know we need to spend some time doing some proactive teaching and not only be reactive to certain behaviors that we see, but overall most kids began to respond, especially when you start paying attention. So part of TBRI is paying attention to sensory issues and to just food and drink.
Anna Palmer: One of the things that is really fascinating that research shows is that children who experienced this early childhood trauma are especially susceptible to dehydration and changes in blood sugar levels. And so when you just start to make sure my child is hydrated and my child, their blood sugar levels are evened out, I’m giving them balanced snacks in between meals. I mean, it’s shocking what that means. Like I fed my children before, it’s not like I wasn’t feeding them, but when we started be really intentional about what that snack was and when that snack was, and that they were staying hydrated. I mean, we saw really quickly progress even there, which gives you the confidence you need to start to make other changes. The sensory needs are important as well. And so a lot of times what we see as won’t behavior is actually can’t behavior, because the child can’t function because of the sensory deficits that they experienced. So they may be a child who’s constantly bumping around and flopping on the ground and spinning and they’re sensory seeking and it looks like they’re just being bad. They won’t sit still, but really their body needs that extra sensory input to be able to regulate. And so when you start to learn these things, you can see changes pretty quickly when you begin to identify what it is your child needs and every child is different. That’s really a long answer to a short question.
Lynette Ezell: No that’s great. In a perfect world, we’re obviously not in a perfect world, because we have foster kids and kids that need to be adopted, and I’m a parent. So that’s my perfect world. But that, man, the cry of my heart is that every single family entering adoption or foster care would be trained in TBRI.
Tera Melber: I agree.
Lynette Ezell: I don’t think you can put enough value on that.
Anna Palmer: Yes, I agree.
Lynette Ezell: I agree. Well, I’ll tell you Anna, this has been such an amazing conversation. I’ve learned so much just from talking to you and appreciate your heart for children and your heart for the children of New Orleans. And you know, Psalm 46:1 reassures us that God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble. And just this morning I was reading on Jason Johnson’s blog and he said, in the beautiful sacrificial redemptive work you’re doing of laying yourself down for the sake of these kids, know that you’re not alone, you’re never alone. The Lord is good and He grants us wisdom and he allows us to not grow weary in doing good. So thank you so much for your work and thank you for your time and we just appreciate you so much.
Anna Palmer: Well thank you. Listen, it’s just amazing to be a part of what God’s doing and we’re humbled by it and we’re blessed by it and it’s a joy. So thank you guys for having me. Really enjoy chatting with y’all.
Lynette Ezell: Thanks, Anna.
Speaker 1: You’ve been listening to the Adopting and Fostering Home Podcast. We’re so glad you’ve taken time to listen today. Keep in mind, we are a ministry of the North American Mission Board and funded through the Annie Armstrong offering and you’re giving to the cooperative program. We look forward to talking more about adoption, fostering and orphan care and how you can be involved.