Like all children, Anna Protano-Biggs was born a blank slate, ready for the world to color who she would become.
Her parents, Antonia Protano and Colin Biggs, drew carefully and deliberately on this unblemished canvas, encouraging her as a young child to listen to others, learn about different perspectives in the world and passionately help others.
Protano and Biggs introduced their daughter to the teachings of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, talked about the Berlin Wall and apartheid in South Africa and introduced her to books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Roots.”
Protano-Biggs’ value system evolved as she began doing charity and hospice work at 16, and later when she came to understand the laws surrounding human rights while studying at the London School of Economics and the University of Essex.
Today, Protano-Biggs, 39, says all people have basic rights to food, water, shelter, health, peace and justice. This zealously held principal inspires her to continually strive to create and see change in her community.
It also fuels Protano-Biggs’ tireless work as director of Mental Health Court in Hamilton County.
Under her guidance, the court aims to end the recidivism of justice-involved clients with mental health needs and, through a combination of judicially-supervised programs and assistance from local partners, place them on a path to a better future.
By developing healthier, empowered individuals, Protano-Biggs says, Mental Health Court makes the community safer and saves the county money.
“These are people who have committed crimes and been jailed, and maybe this is a cycle in their life,” she explains. “Mental Health Court is a way of trying something different – of hopefully stopping the revolving door.”
As director, Protano-Biggs shoulders a heavy load. She and her staff of two (the county has given her a case manager and a navigator) manage 100 people in Mental Health Court’s judicially supervised programs – which include a Criminal Court run by Judge Don Poole and a General Sessions Court run by Judge Lila Statom – and 50 more in its client-assistance program.
Protano-Biggs also interfaces with Mental Health Court’s many local partners, which adds another layer of complexity to her work, she says. “There are challenges to working with multiple agencies, but it increases the resources we can provide because each agency has its strengths and we can send our clients to precisely where they’re going to receive the help they need.”
For example, Mental Health Court works closely with Partnership for Families, Children and Adults, the Family Justice Center, Love’s Arm and Second Life Tennessee to help clients who have suffered sexual trauma.
“We meet every week to discuss our clients,” Protano-Biggs says. “Our partners work on the mental health aspects at their facilities, my staff works on the broader, holistic picture, and we work closely together to make sure we’re providing the resources our clients need.”
As director, Protano-Biggs also must keep an eye on the dollars the court spends. Although the tension between budget and needs rarely loosens, she’s demonstrated an uncanny ability for identifying new avenues of service and finding ways to pay for them.
To fund the sexual trauma track, Protano-Biggs says Mental Health Court applied for and received a Victim of Crime Act grant from the state. This was a long shot, as VOCA grants aren’t typically given to organizations that serve the justice-involved population. But Protano-Biggs identified a need and made an effective argument for receiving the funds.
“Justice involved clients aren’t who you typically think of when you picture victims and survivors. But their justice involvement is normally a nexus with their mental health,” she adds. “That doesn’t excuse their criminal behavior but it does give you some understanding of how to best support clients and make sure you’re looking at the whole person and true wellness.”
Protano-Biggs might have developed her talent for finding money in unlikely places out of necessity, as she seems hardwired to pursue growth. This trait manifests itself in her continually expanding vision for Mental Health Court.
In addition to the VOCA grant, Protano-Biggs notes the court recently received a federal award that’s helping the department to establish a veteran’s track and a SOAR award from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The latter will increase access to Social Security disability benefits for eligible clients who are experiencing homelessness and have a serious mental illness, medical impairment or co-occurring substance use disorder.
Hamilton County’s Mental Health Court was one of six recipients of a SOAR grant nationwide. In addition, the court has implemented ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) assessments for all its clients to better identify their needs.
“We tell them a high number [a person’s ACE score] doesn’t mean they have no hope in life,” Protano-Biggs says. “It’s just one of the many tools we use to help our clients transform their lives and better our community.”
Although some clients fail to complete the program, the department has its success stories, too. One man recently wrote a note to the court’s navigator, Esther Davenport, thanking her for helping.
“He’d never had anyone sit down and listen to him, never had anyone support and believe in him, but he knows our entire team believes in him, and that inspires him to keep going,” Protano-Biggs continues. “He was in custody every month, and it’s been more than nine months since he wrote that letter. Now he’s exploring his dreams for the future.”
Word of the work Protano-Biggs is doing at the court has trickled out of Chattanooga and touched ears elsewhere in the state. In 2017, the Tennessee chapter of the National Association of Social Workers named her its Public Official of the Year.
She says it was a tremendous honor to be recognized statewide for her work and to be recognized by social workers. “I’m not a social worker, but work with and value the support of social workers every day,” she explains.
Protano-Biggs also rebuffs the notion that she’s largely responsible for the growth and successes of the court. Instead, she defers credit to her staff and the department’s community partners.
“You have to work together to achieve something. Strong leaders aren’t necessarily powerful individuals but they do understand how to build a team and empower others,” she says. “That’s a natural part of what I do. I work best when I have great minds around me giving me ideas.
“When we work in isolation, we lose sight of the big picture. But when we put together a team with different cultural perspectives and life experiences, we can accomplish a lot more.”
Still, the pulse that beats under the surface of Mental Health Court is clearly powered by Protano-Biggs’ passion to ensure those within her reach have access to their basic rights.
“We’re taking people who would have been released from the justice system and told, ‘Good luck! You’re on your own!’ into Mental Health Court and learning who they are. We’re trying to get to the root of how we can best help them,” she says.
“Our community is made up of many diverse people, and we need to remember every population,” Protano-Biggs continues. “We talk about being a community of innovation and creativity, and part of doing that is being inclusive of everyone.”
Becoming a barrister
Although she lived in several cities in England and the U.S. after being born in Cambridge, she spent more of her childhood and youth in the United Kingdom than anywhere else, as her accent reveals.
Her pronounced English accent would act as a mild language barrier when she became a public defender in Chattanooga, but it didn’t hold her back as her Italian mother and English father moved between cities and continents for work.
“Growing up was challenging because I was always changing schools and making new friends,” she recalls. “But as an adult, I’ve come to appreciate how much I grew from that and how it enabled me to fit into any scenario and see the diversity of the world.”
Protano-Biggs returned to Cambridge for sixth form college, similar to the last two years of high school in the U.S., studying chemistry, biology and mathematics as a precursor to medical school, and Italian because she wanted to.
For most of her adolescence, Protano-Biggs had wanted to pursue the legal profession, but a dismaying encounter during a career fair temporarily derailed her ambitions. “My favorite book, which my parents had given to me when I was 5 or 6, was “To Kill a Mockingbird.’’ I was passionate about people’s rights and wanted to be an attorney.
“So, I spoke with a solicitor at a career fair. He worked in the commercial field, and as a 14-year-old, I found him quite dull. My mum saw I was downcast and upset and suggested we look at some other professions.”
Protano-Biggs talked with a pathologist, whose stories about the autopsies he’d performed sparked her interest in the medical field. “He was a really warm character. I was hooked.”
Protano-Biggs entered Imperial College in London in 1997 and then left after earning a Bachelor of Science in basic medical sciences with health management.
“I had seen how having the right system can make a big difference in people’s lives,” she says. “It helped me understand where my skills would be best utilized. I’m good with individual clients but I like seeing the bigger puzzle and trying to find the right pieces to serve my community.”
Protano-Biggs then spent a year traveling and completing independent research for the Ministry of Health in the Republic of Georgia. “Since they were a war-torn country, they didn’t have an infrastructure for family health care, so we looked at how we could launch the initial system.”
She also applied to law school.
“By that point, I understood how systems work can be very impactful,” she says. “I believed there were ways in which I could advocate for changes in the law that could help.”
Protano-Biggs was primarily interested in human rights, so she studied law at the London School of Economics, which has a world-renowned human rights program.
While there, Protano-Biggs formed one of the first student chapters of Liberty, the sister organization of the ACLU in the UK, and put together a team to advocate for human rights.
“We had a lot of detention cases [in the wake of 9/11], which gave me the opportunity to talk with many high-level barristers,” she recalls. “This helped me to understand how you can advocate for human rights on many different levels.”
Protano-Biggs also served as human rights director of the European Law Students Association while in law school. This role allowed her to take a team to the 56th UN sub-commission on human rights in Geneva and deliver a speech on human rights education. “That was a pivotal moment for me. It was a chance to talk about issues we cared about and connect with some of the people who could do something about them.’’
The political and advocacy work Protano-Biggs did while a student at LSE had a profound impact, with the ripples from that time extending even to her work with Mental Health Court.
“It was an informative three years that really shaped who I am,” she says. “I’d never had the word to use before about how I care about community until human rights came into my life.”
Before embarking on a legal career, Protano-Biggs had to choose between becoming a solicitor or a barrister, the two professions that together are analogous to an attorney in the U.S.
Protano-Biggs wanted to become a barrister in order to serve as a trial attorney. (Solicitors predominantly work with clients.) To do so, she needed to take a yearlong bar vocational course that came with its own challenges.
“Students have to dine 12 times before they can become a barrister. This allows them to talk with older barristers about their careers,” she explains. “That was challenging for me because I hate going into a room full of people I don’t know. Despite the work I do and all the different people I meet, I’m incredibly shy at times.”
Because Protano-Biggs intended to become a barrister of Middle Temple, one of the four Inns of Court for England and Wales, she wound up dining in the hall where scenes in the “Harry Potter” movies were filmed.
More impressive to Protano-Biggs were the conversations she had with the barristers.
“I was able to hear their perspectives and listen to their stories about the challenges they faced. It was amazing – especially hearing the women,” she recalls. “Women were still in the minority in the law but had been taking huge steps forward. It was a great opportunity to hear what was possible.
“Everyone of us needs to know we have the potential to soar and be what we want to be. Seeing what other people have done is an important part of you being empowered to do it yourself.”
Coming to Chattanooga
While working for ELSA, Protano-Biggs traveled to different universities to support the labor of students within the organization. During that time, she met a University of Birmingham law professor who had worked with public defenders across Tennessee.
Through that connection, Protano-Biggs secured a summer volunteer position assisting the Public Defender’s Office in Chattanooga with death penalty cases.
Having never studied American law, she committed herself to learning the differences.
“I think there are merits to both systems, and both face challenges,” she acknowledges. “It’s hard for me to say I prefer one over the other but I do enjoy the familiarity of the bar in Chattanooga.”
Protano-Biggs dug deep and gained significant legal experience while working on cases in the pre-conviction and post-conviction stages.
Following her summer in the Scenic City, Protano-Biggs earned an LLM in international human rights law at the University of Essex. While there, she took a job with the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to the highest attainable standard of health, an expert appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The position gave Protano-Biggs a chance to utilize her language skills while working with French-speaking African countries and Spanish-speaking South American countries to collect health indicators to look at the health status of those countries.
She was going to renew her contract with the UN when “out of the blue” she received an offer to work on death penalty cases for the Public Defender’s Office in Chattanooga. It was a difficult choice, she says.
“I had job security with the UN, and when you’re young, the UN sounds like a big, amazing adventure, but I’d also loved my time in Chattanooga and did want practical experience working as an attorney with clients,” she recalls.
So, Protano-Biggs accepted the offer, which was contingent on her passing the bar, and in 2008 moved to Chattanooga.
By the time Protano-Biggs had settled into her new job, the death penalty cases at the office had dried up. But the job was still hers, as was the sizable case load it came with.
To serve her clients to the best of her abilities, Protano-Biggs devoted a considerable amount of time to getting to know them. “I’d see clients on a Sunday afternoon at Hamilton County Jail or Silverdale. I later corrected that so I had a better work-life balance, but that first year was intense,” she says.
Part of her conversations with clients involved asking questions about their mental health, substance abuse and traumatic brain injuries to form a complete picture of their circumstances.
“You see a range of needs as a public defender, and if you don’t ask those questions, people won’t know to share that information, and then you’re missing an important part of how to best advocate for your clients,” she says. “It’s not the easiest path to take, but getting to know people from different backgrounds and experiences is the joy of being a public defender. I love advocating in that kind of environment.”
Protano-Biggs estimates half of her clients as a public defender had mental health, substance abuse, homelessness, developmental disability and chronic health needs, while more than half had suffered a traumatic brain injury.
When she learned sentencing advocate Samantha Bayles had pulled together a group of behavioral health providers and criminal justice entities to discuss these needs, she become involved.
The group eventually formed the Criminal Justice and Behavioral Health Task Force, which met monthly to talk about client and community needs and working together to address them.
Through that gathering, Bayles and Protano-Biggs learned about the Jericho Project in Memphis. They then talked with Stephen Bush, the leader of the project, about the success he was having helping people access the mental health resources they needed.
“They recognized them as human beings, not just justice-involved, and we wanted to bring that here,” Protano-Biggs says.
Public Defender Ardena Garth allowed Bayles and Protano-Biggs to organize a pilot program called the Bridge Project, which they operated for a year with funding from AIM Center of Chattanooga.
After losing funding, Bayles and Protano-Biggs continued to press the issue. A speaking engagement with the Regional Health Council finally got the ball rolling.
“The press started calling and we gained some political support,” Protano-Biggs says. “There were also more mental health providers in the community, and we met and talked with them.”
The response from the community was extraordinary, Protano-Biggs says. More than 65 agencies formed a planning committee for Mental Health Court and an additional 20 agencies coalesced into an advisory board.
Eager to start and unwilling to wait for funding, Bayles and Protano-Biggs launched the court in July 2015 without any money. When Protano-Biggs spoke at the National Mental Health Court Summit in Park City, Utah, in 2016, she told her listeners to move forward with their plans, even when they lack currency.
“If you have needs in your community, start a mental health court. Funding will come because you’re saving people money,” she continues. “Funding helps but you can accomplish a lot just by having the passion to do something and the commitment of people in the community to do it.”
Bayles and Protano-Biggs took baby steps at first, organizing a small pilot court with the blessing of the new public defender, Steven Smith. Then, over the course of the next two years, their docket grew.
Struggling under the weight of operating Mental Health Court and handling a full load as a public defender, Protano-Biggs talked with Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger about the need for sustained funding.
“Mental Health Court needed its own funding and a long-term way to grow outside the Public Defender’s Office,” Protano-Biggs says. “It helped that we were saving the county money and transforming lives.”
Protano-Biggs convinced Coppinger that the cost of not funding the court was greater than the cost of funding it, and in July 2017, the County Commission officially created the department and made her its director.
Counting the cost
Two years later, Protano-Biggs is able to reflect on the impact spearheading the court has had on her. Although she’s pleased that it’s become its own entity, she does miss advocating in court and working with individual clients.
Even as she says this, she admits these are simply growing pains. “I’ve gone through a transition. But in terms of what we needed, this was the best thing,” she says. “We needed independence, funding and community support to sustain us long-term.”
When Protano-Biggs feels weighed down by responsibility, she says she feeds her passion for others by connecting to the community. Her primary conduit is the Peer Community Board she and Gina Turley, consumer housing specialist at AIM Center, co-founded as part of the work they’re doing with the FUSE Initiative Leadership Committee at the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office. (FUSE stands for Frequent Users Systems Engagement.)
“It’s still in its infancy, but we set it up to give our peers – people in our community who have mental health needs and prior justice-involvement – a voice on the policies and programs developed in our community.”
If this sounds like more work for Protano-Biggs, that’s because it is. But when it comes to serving her community, she’s either tireless or able to maintain a steady pace despite being exhausted.
Given all this, one has to wonder where Protano-Biggs finds the energy to be a mom. Wherever that reserve exists, it allows her and her husband, Jeremy Belk, a lethality assessment program specialist who works with domestic violence survivors at the Family Justice Center, to care for her four young sons, including one newborn.
“As parents, you’re learning every day, and you feel like you’re failing every day, but coming home to those little munchkins and the love and chaos in our household makes the hard work my husband and I do in this community worthwhile,” she explains.
Like her parents did with her, Protano-Biggs is carefully and deliberately drawing on her small, unblemished canvases. She and Belk are actively exposing their children to different aspects of their individual cultures and developing a world of different languages and cultures for them to see.
“My husband is Cherokee, so we’re doing things to help the kids understand and embrace that,” she adds. “We’re also making sure they visit Italy and England as much as is financially possible.”
Protano-Biggs realizes she must take care of herself to be able to take care of others, so she relaxes by reading. She recently read Brene Brown’s “Braving the Wilderness” and is making her way through “Becoming” by Michelle Obama.
“Reading is a passion of mine,” she says. “It’s become an extraordinary challenge because my tiredness is so high that I have to read the same thing over and over, but I love the escapism and thought-provoking nature of books.’’
Protano-Biggs also unwinds by connecting with others. She says she especially cherishes the bond she’s formed with a group of women who, like her, come from immigrant families or are immigrants themselves. “I cherish that group enormously,” she says. “We have dinner once a month and chat about our lives and experiences.”
These personal oases renew Protano-Biggs for the challenges Mental Health Court presents. Although the program is at capacity, there’s more need in the community, so she’s pressing for additional case managers and other staff.
Then there are the immediate challenges each busy day brings. Fortunately, these days offer their own rewards.
“On that bad day, when we’re trying to cope with so many different needs and clients all at once, hearing the success stories of clients who have taken huge, transformative leaps forward, when they initially looked like they were going to break every rule we have, helps,” she says.
Although the court in its present form might not have come into being without the Herculean efforts of Protano-Biggs, she says the day will come when it’s time for her to move on.
For her, life is about doing the work she’s meant to do in the present and then seizing the next opportunity for growth.
“I don’t want to be the director of Mental Health Court forever; I want to grow beyond it,” she says. “Right now, I’m critically providing the foundational support that will put the department firmly in a good and lasting place to accomplish its mission.
“But once Mental Health Court is a sustained entity and I’m no longer growing here, it will be time for me to find the next area of growth.”
Once that happens, the sky is the limit. “I’m open to all kinds of possibilities. I’ve learned I’m a change-maker. That could lead me in many different directions.”