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It’s Every Child: Marsha Griffin and Children on the Border

Marsha Griffin MD
I see immigrant children and mobile poor every day in our clinic... We have families and friends stuck in the violence on the other side [across the Border Wall].
It’s Every Child: Marsha Griffin and Children on the Border

Marsha Griffin, MD, began medical school in San Antonio, Texas, at age 50. It was a lifelong goal that included a few detours, most aimed at fighting injustice and prejudice. They included starting a nonprofit documentary film company in Santa Fe for young people to highlight issues affecting their lives; working with a housing development company to develop services for the homeless, street kids and Somali refugees; and studying social justice issues at United Theological Seminary, where she wanted to “wallow in mad:” “I had seen so much injustice throughout my life; so much prejudice, oppression and bias; I was seeking alternative ways to articulate my anger.” Her quest culminated in fulfilling a long-held dream. Dr. Griffin received a medical degree from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA) in 2003 and completed her residency in general pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, and UTHSCSA in June 2006.

MCN GriffinNow a pediatrician at Brownsville Community Health Center (BCHC), Dr. Griffin is co-founder and director of Community for Children (CfC), a project of UTHSCSA’s Department of Pediatrics in San Antonio, but situated in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  It is a four-week curriculum for fourth-year medical students and residents. She is also lead physician in the Medico-Legal Partnership RioGrande Valley, a collaboration between BCHC and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.

Dr. Griffin’s introduction to migrants and awareness of their circumstances began as a young mother living in Harlingen, Texas, at the height of the Central American wars. Very involved in civic activities, she was drawn more and more to social justice and began visiting INS (now ICE) detention centers and hidden sanctuaries for the refugees with pastors, bishops, priests, and nuns. There she met Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, and other refugees seeking asylum from the horrors of violence in their home countries. Since then, Dr. Griffin has worked with Somali and other refugees in Minneapolis; worked in the colonias of Matamoros, Mexico; and now cares daily for immigrant and non-immigrant families in Brownsville, Texas.

Dr. Griffin describes Community for Children (CfC) as “a synthesis of my life’s passions in addressing social injustices.” CfC was founded on the premise that poverty is a frequent underlying cause of ill health in children and families; that physicians, as they diagnose and treat illness, can learn to be advocates for their patients and address the social determinants that affect their health. As CfC’s website explains:

Children often suffer the greatest from the social injustices often inherent in poverty: inadequate housing, environmental risks, malnutrition, lack of access to healthcare, and international imbalances of resources that often fuel international economic upheaval and political turmoil leading to transnational migration.

The idea for CfC began while Dr. Griffin was a medical student at UTHSCSA in San Antonio. While in medical school, Dr. Griffin did research for the Poison Control Center. This took her back to the Rio Grande Valley to interview Spanish-speaking mothers and grandmothers about use of the Center. “I came back several times and then worked in colonias in Matamoros for a couple of months and fell in love with the Valley. I knew I needed to create something like CfC, but didn’t know what it was. I knew faculty in San Antonio who felt the same way.”

During her residency program at UTHSCSA, she was “allowed to have a ‘sabbatical’ – two electives that would let me read and write and interview community leaders and faculty from across the country, and exercise and run. This opportunity allowed me the needed space for creativity. I went back to UTHSCSA to work with faculty in San Antonio to create what eventually became CfC.” Dr. Griffin and Minnette Son, MD, a UTHSCSA professor of pediatrics and now colleague, co-founded CfC together.

Dr. Griffin’s passion is infectious as she says, “We don’t do a great job teaching physicians how to be advocates, and that should be one of their important roles. Physicians don’t usually have the opportunity to meet families in their homes and communities to learn ‘cultural humility.’ So, in San Antonio we created this program for fourth-year medical students and residents.” CfC gives them “training in how to get mad and then how to change things; whether it’s systems or the world, or just the thing in front of [them].”  The Rio Grande Valley offers medical students and residents myriad opportunities to learn, to grow and to act over the course of the four-week curriculum. They work in colonias along the border, in detention facilities, and with community organizations working with the poor. CfC provides a more intimate education in understanding the personal impact of social determinants of health.

Community for Children is one expression of Dr. Griffin’s commitment to the children and families living in poverty and deprivation along the US/Mexico border. Brownsville sits adjacent to Mexico, a sister city to Matamoros. It is a vibrant region, but one with more than its share of drug cartels and other violence on the Mexican side of the border. “Brownsville Community Health Center is always at the cutting edge of migrant health and social justice work in the Valley,” Dr. Griffin explains. “I see immigrant children and mobile poor every day in our clinic. Although Brownsville and the Valley are safe, we are all affected by what is happening just across the Border Wall. We have families and friends stuck in the violence on the other side.” When asked what keeps her going, her reply is simple: “It’s the kids.”

Dr. Griffin recently wrote about a 14-year-old girl, raped in Matamoros. “She went with her mother to the Matamoros police and filed a report – and two days later began getting death threats. … She came to BCHC for care; we’re kind of the first stop.”

The health center is in the southernmost part of the city. “I usually introduce myself to new families and children and ask them what brought them to the Valley or ask them where they lived before. I tell them, ‘We’re so glad you’re here; you’re welcome here, and we’re a safe place; and we want you to know that we’re here for your family.’ This often provokes tears and the telling of the most horrible stories. You just can’t make up these stories. That’s what keeps me in it.”

MCN GriffinThe influx of children from Central America, a story that has roiled the country for months, is a visceral experience for Dr. Griffin. Urged by pediatricians around the country to tell this story, Dr. Griffin wrote “Children’s Lives on the Border” with co-authors Minnette Son and Eliot Shapleigh. It was published in April 2014 in Pediatrics (published online April 7, 2014; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2013-2813).

“This is not a new issue,” Dr. Griffin observes. “Kids and moms have been coming here forever. It’s just gotten really bad, so horrendously bad that they’ll chance everything.”

For several months she has been working with her husband, Mike Siefert and others in the Valley to organize networks of care for the unaccompanied children and mothers detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, once they have been processed, but before they are sent to relatives across the country. She is currently working with the medical students and residents participating in the four-week CfC curriculum, and preparing for the next rotation. “Immigration is always a huge part of our curriculum and the medical students and residents are always in those places working, going with attorneys to do intakes with the detained unaccompanied immigrant children, teaching in the detention centers with the kids, and going to immigration court.”

In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recognized Dr. Griffin’s commitment with the Local Heroes Award, presented at a Community Pediatrics Awards Luncheon as part of AAP’s national conference. It is a recognition of her passion, and how she translates her passion into action. What does she finds most gratifying in her work? “It’s the kids and moms and dads that come through here.” What motivates her to continue? “It’s every child.”

Dr. Griffin continues to fight for health justice and for social justice to make life better for each life she touches. She invites all who would to come and join her and the organizations working for change in the Rio Grande Valley, and beyond.

30 CLINICIANS MAKING A DIFFERENCE is a project celebrating Migrant Clinicians Network's 30th anniversary through the life stories of 30 clinicians making a difference in migrant health. Learn more about Migrant Clinicians Network.

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