At the age of nine, Naylar always made sure to wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants to school. Her mum didn’t want anyone to see the bruises and scars on her body—marks of a life of incessant abuse at home. But despite being moved from school to school to avoid suspicion, it was only a matter of time be- fore the state intervened, and Naylar was placed in foster care.

Initially relieved and grateful for the respite, Naylar expected life to get significantly better. However, by the age of 12, she had been placed in the homes of 44 different carers. “I just didn’t care about anything anymore,” Naylar says. “I was moved from foster home to foster home. I was only placed in short-term care, and they seemed always to need to move me on for some reason or another.” After experiencing years of inconceivable abuse at the hands of her mother and other family members, Naylar was plunged into a cycle of more disruption, and was even sexually abused while in the care of one foster family.

This is unacceptable.

In New Zealand, there are approximately 6,000 tamariki (children) like Naylar who have been removed from unsafe homes and placed in foster care. Oranga Tamariki’s most recent findings reveal that 58 percent of children in care will not go on to obtain NCEA Level 2, with 45 percent having no NCEA qualifications at all. By the age of 18, almost 20 percent of tamariki whāngai (fostered children) have had youth justice statutory involvement. As Naylar’s story reveals, children in care are not always guaranteed protection from further abuse. If the aim of removing children from dangerous home environments is to protect, nurture, and empower them, what are we getting wrong? And how can we do better? Much, much better.

Oranga Tamariki’s Manager for Māori Support, Frana Chase, says, “Of course our hope is that in the long term, there wouldn’t be a need for foster care; that we would be able to effectively support parents and whānau to ensure that tamariki are safe in their own homes. This is why our focus is on prevention, and early intervention. We are working alongside communities, iwi, and hapū to co-design the kind of support that will work in each region in New Zealand.”

Ursula Elisara, CEO of Immerse Charitable Trust believes the answer lies in how caregivers and whānau are supported to take care of vulnerable tamariki. “The reality is that foster children have experienced complex developmental trauma,” Ursula says. “Just loving them and putting a roof over their heads is not going to be enough to heal them.” This is why she and her team have adopted a therapeutic model of training caregivers.

After many years of caring for tamariki whāngai herself, Ursula saw the opportunity for caregivers to love and support these children in a way that would begin to reverse some of the harmful effects of their pasts—at a neurological level. She believes that in order to break the cycle of intergenerational abuse and dysfunction, we need to provide tamariki with the kind of love that grows brains; with the kind of care that builds a firm foundation for their own children to stand on.

“The reality is that foster children have experienced complex developmental trauma. Just loving them and putting a roof over their heads is not going to be enough to heal them.”

We’ve always known experientially that humans need love and relationships to survive and heal, but thanks to advances in neuroscience, we can now see the evidence blinking back at us from brain scans. This may seem irrelevant for those of us who aren’t scientists or doctors, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Properly understanding just how plastic and wonderful our brains are has the power to transform the way we care for one another—particularly our most vulnerable young people. 

Over the last 30 years, and more specifically the last 10, the world of neuroscience, developmental psychopathology and interpersonal neurobiology have been exploding with discoveries. Importantly, our knowledge about the effects of trauma, abuse and neglect has deepened, and we now know that these experiences greatly compromise a person’s ability to positively interact and act in the world—at every level.

In his groundbreaking book, The Body Keeps the Score, psychiatrist Dr Bessel van der Kolk says, “We now know that the behaviours [of traumatised individuals] are not the result of moral failings or signs of lack of willpower or bad character—they are caused by actual changes in the brain.” In the case of young children, not only do traumatic experiences and neglect alter brain chemistry, they actually inhibit the growth and development of critical parts of the brain. 

To pick one example, and explain it in very simple terms—living in a constant state of danger or uncertainty, we become so good at accessing the “lower” part of our brains (the limbic system, that helps us detect and respond to threat), that the higher-functioning parts (that allow humans to reason, intuit, and relate) don’t get much practice. With an over-developed limbic system, and an under-developed cortex, we struggle to distinguish safety from danger, or friend from foe. Essentially “stuck” in a mode of flight, fight or freeze, our behaviours are likely to be impulsive, violent or irrational, or we may find ourselves frozen, unable to emote. Abused, traumatised children often exhibit delays in physical, emotional, and social development. The impact of the absence and violation of love is devastating, and it is long term. 

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Harvard Medical School’s Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Dr Martin Teicher, puts it this way: “Maltreatment is a chisel that shapes a brain to contend with strife, but at the cost of deep, enduring wounds. Childhood abuse isn’t something you ‘get over.’ It is an evil that we must acknowledge and confront if we aim to do anything about the unchecked cycle of violence.”

With this sobering reality in mind, Ursula and her co-founder came across a therapeutic model called Trust-Based Relational Intervention® (TBRI®). TBRI® is an attachment-based, trauma-informed intervention created for parents, caregivers, and anyone caring for children from “hard places.” It recognises that abused or neglected children experience trauma in the context of relationships, and that it is only through establishing new, trusting relationships that true recovery can occur. Developers of TBRI®, Dr David Cross and Dr Karyn Purvis say, “Interventions that include caregivers may be more effective because treatment occurs in the child’s environment where challenges occur. While children may spend an hour a week in a professional’s office, they spend vast hours in the care of their parents or caregivers. In particular it has been noted that relationship-based trauma can only be resolved through loving, stable relationships, such as can be offered by nurturing caregivers.” 

Ursula shares that TBRI® offers tools and insights to uncover what is going on below the surface of a child’s behaviour in order to shift their centre of gravity from survival to safety. This includes addressing the basic conditions we can so easily take for granted like hydration, regular meals, safety and rest. But the real cornerstone of TBRI® is relational connection—and this, to a large extent, takes care of the need for behavioural “correction.” The reason being that consistent, trust-building love (secure attachment) is what enables healthy brain development, and the capacity for self-regulation. 

“If you see a child who comes from a hard place behaving badly—even in your beautiful, safe, flourishing home—rather than asking, ‘What’s wrong with you?’, TBRI® insists that we ask, ‘What happened to you? What do you need?’,” says Ursula. “We have to see their behaviour as survival, and try to uncover the very real needs behind it. The more we use our power to try and control behaviour, the more the child will react defensively.” 

If healing requires relationship, then every maltreated child needs one of us.

Donnalee and Paul, who currently have five tamariki in their care, give an example of this in action. Speaking about 13-year-old Juanita* who has been in their care for 14 months, Donnalee shares, “She would throw these huge temper tantrums and her behaviour would be extreme. With our own children, we would have reacted to this kind of behaviour with strong consequences, but TBRI® has given us different tools. Rather than punishing her, I started to notice that her outbursts always happened after she returned from therapy, and I asked her if she’d mind telling me if anything had happened. When she saw that she wasn’t in trouble, she was able to tell me that there was a man in the room when she went for therapy, and this made her very anxious and uncomfortable. I was able to talk to the therapist to make sure this male trainee wasn’t present again. Her tantrums got much better. Through these kinds of interactions, we started to gain her trust, and she began to realise that she has a voice and the right to be listened to.” 

Not long after this, Juanita’s best friend passed away. Because of the trust they’d slowly built, Juanita was able to allow Donnalee and Paul to love and comfort her through her grief. She felt safe enough to wake them up in the middle of the night to share her tears and allow them to hold her close. This was a significant milestone, and the kind of brain-healing, heart-mending experience every child from hard places deserves. Juanita is now flourishing at school, and has a memory book (a TBRI® tool), made by Donnalee, filled with photos and notes reflecting the past 14 months—a treasure trove of redemptive moments.

Of course, this kind of care requires caregivers to have an enormous capacity, and to be well aware of their own emotional triggers. Historically, caregiver mental health and wellbeing haven’t been included in foster care training, but this is absolutely crucial for the stability of placements. One of the reasons for the nightmarish game of musical chairs that children are subjected to, is that carers aren’t equipped to handle the intensity of their troubling behaviour. Homes of Hope CEO, Hilary Price, says, “The rapid development of brain science has begun to inform practice over the last 8 -10 years, but what’s been missing is the internal journey for caregivers. We need to understand how our own developmental trajectory has been affected and impacted, before we can relate to trauma-experienced children in a truly meaningful way. TBRI® has the ability to heal big people as well as little people, and that’s what makes it so effective.”

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Paul and Donnalee

Naylar is an incredible true-life example of this. Her story took a turn for the better when she was finally placed with a caregiver who was able to provide long term, consistent love and care for her. Remarkably, she and her husband are now foster caregivers themselves—trained in TBRI® through Immerse. Reflecting on the reasons she chose to train in TBRI®, Naylar says, “It requires you to do a lot of work on yourself, so you can understand how your own past impacts the children in your care. Many people have the right heart for foster care, but when you don’t have the right tools, it’s really difficult to care for kids who have been abused and neglected.” Explaining why she chose to become a carer herself, Naylar says, “I long for children to just be children. For them to know how precious they are; that it’s okay to make mistakes, to tell jokes, to skip and play. If children are allowed to be children, they’ll be much better adults when they have their own kids one day.” 

Not only do traumatic experiences and neglect alter brain chemistry, they actually inhibit the growth and development of critical parts of the brain.

As a society, we are often guilty of reducing complexity to variables we can control. We focus on symptoms, becoming tangled in diagnostic knots, as we try to manage children’s adverse behaviour. We label children from hard places as having Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ADHD, depression and so on, without exploring the complex causes of these behaviours and seeking to eradicate the source—the maltreatment of children. Drawing on data from more than 50,000 participants since 1997, the Adverse Childhood Experience study has revealed that, “Eradicating child abuse in America would reduce the overall rate of depression by more than half, alcoholism by two-thirds, and suicide, IV drug use, and domestic violence by three-quarters. It would also have a dramatic effect on workplace performance and vastly decrease the need for incarceration”

This is why the introduction of therapeutic frameworks like TBRI® are so deeply hopeful for the future of our nation. Certainly not because it’s a silver bullet or a “one size fits all” approach, but because it reminds us of the very real neurobiological impacts of trauma, and that healing can only take place through intentional relationships. This leads us into a very personal challenge—as individuals and communities. While programmes like TBRI®, and government policies are critical in creating the conditions for change, if healing requires relationship, then every maltreated child needs one of us. Oranga Tamariki’s Principal Advisor Practice, Kiri Alexander, says, “We all need to take a community approach to caregiving. As parents, regardless of our background or needs, we all need a network of support. This is true for those who open their homes to foster kids, and those who are at risk of losing their children to state care. If you can’t become a caregiver yourself, support those who can, and even more importantly, those families who are struggling to provide adequate care for their own children.”

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Naylar and her family

Shelly Neethling

Michelle has a background in editing and communications, and a deep love for people. She is fascinated by what makes humans tick, and understanding how our lives and relationships deeply impact one another—at all levels. Having worked at Parenting Place and Laidlaw College, she is now a stay-at-home mum, engaging in various projects and contract work on the side. Michelle is married to Nico and mum to Evelyn, with another two on the way.