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AAP Conference Preview: Learn what you can do to support children crossing border alone :

October 7, 2016

Editor’s note: For more on educational sessions and events at the 2016 AAP National Conference & Exhibition in San Francisco, read the preview issue of AAP News Today. To register for the conference, visit

If you travel north on the highway out of Brownsville, Texas, you’re likely to come across a large white bus. It has no markings on the outside, and its windows are blackened. If you drive past, you might catch a glimpse of children inside.

The youths are not headed to a school field trip or an athletic event. No, they are on another leg of their perilous journey from Central America. The bus is taking them north, perhaps to Chicago or Colorado, because no beds were available at any of the federal shelters in southern Texas.

“And that disturbs me. It disturbs me greatly,” said Marsha Griffin, M.D., FAAP, who works in a clinic in Brownsville. 

“What I think about when I see those buses is that number one they are alone and how many stops have they already made and they’re still not where they were supposed to go,” said Dr. Griffin. “This was not part of their plan when they left their country. Those are scared kids and that bothers me. And it bothers me that nobody knows that. Most people driving down the highway don’t know what that bus is.”

Dr. Griffin plans to call attention to the risks thousands of children face during their travels to the U.S., the challenges they encounter when they get here and how pediatricians can help during her plenary address titled “Unaccompanied Refugee Minors: Supporting Their Health and Development (P4046),” from 11:30-11:50 a.m. Oct. 25 at the AAP National Conference & Exhibition.

Dr. Griffin is director of Community for Children, a program that brings residents and medical students from all over the country to the U.S./Mexico border to work on social justice issues. Some of the residents and medical students visit children who are in Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters, hear their stories and accompany them to immigration court.

Often, the children’s families incur a huge debt to get them here, Dr. Griffin said. They may have mortgaged property or gotten a large amount of money together to pay someone to bring their children to the U.S.

When the children are apprehended at the border, they feel guilty because they can’t immediately go to work and make money so their family can pay back their debt. “That’s a huge burden that the children carry,” said Dr. Griffin, a member of the Immigrant Health Special Interest Group of the AAP Council on Community Pediatrics and the Section on International Child Health.

The children often suffer trauma on their journey and during their detainment. When they finally make it to their destination, they may have trouble adjusting to their new circumstances.

Pediatricians called on to care for these children may not know where to begin to address their physical, mental, legal and educational needs.

The most important thing, Dr. Griffin said, is to ask about the child’s journey and whether he or she is safe. “And to build that sense of trust with the child and/or caregivers that you are there to support them.”

During her talk, Dr. Griffin will review AAP resources available to help pediatricians care for unaccompanied refugee children, including the Immigrant Health Toolkit. She also plans to highlight what AAP leaders are doing to address this humanitarian crisis.

During the years she has run Community for Children and worked with Mexican immigrants in her clinic, Dr. Griffin has heard many heart-wrenching stories from children and families. Yet she maintains hope.

“The thing that gives me hope is walking with these survivors, is knowing these women and their stories and their fight for asylum and the continued joy for living that they have,” Dr. Griffin said. “And maybe it’s not joy, but it is the biggest, hardest perseverance I’ve ever seen, and they can still laugh and they can find joy.”

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