Moving from Trauma to Firm Ground

Posted on May 22, 2019 by Catholic Charities Admin  |  Share

Catholic Charities NY Celebrates Terra Firma & Its Support for Immigrant Youth

Terra Firma, a project of Catholic Charities New York, The Children's Health Fund, and The Children's Hospital at Montefiore, is the only legal-medical partnership in the country designed specifically for children who crossed the Mexican border illegally and are trying to settle into their new communities.  The program began in October 2013, months before the surge of unaccompanied minors entering the United States. Now, more than five years later, its cofounders look back on lessons learned from their medical, legal, and mental health advocacy for unaccompanied children and ways this special partnership can light the way moving forward. 


By Terra Firma co-founders Brett Stark, Esq., Alan Shapiro, MD, and Cristina Muñiz de la Peña, PhD

Dear friends,

Swapping Trauma for Solid Ground

On September 25, 2013 a small group of about twelve unaccompanied immigrant children

gathered in a conference room at a pediatric clinic in the South Bronx. They had arrived with their lawyers and legal advocates to a room filled with balloons, welcome signs, snacks and seating. It was the first-ever meeting of the “Immigrant Youth Clinic,” a new initiative designed to address the unmet medical, legal, and mental health needs of unaccompanied immigrant children, who had begun to arrive to the United States in historic numbers.

These youth faced enormous challenges: at risk of deportation, acculturating to new environs, and processing traumatic histories as targets of persecution, torture, and abuse. Together, we created Terra Firma (Latin for “solid ground”).

Innovations for Immigrant Children

Today, Terra Firma continues to serve recently arrived unaccompanied immigrant children in the South Bronx. From that first group of twelve has sprung a vibrant cohort of more than 500 children, adult caretakers, and family members that receive co-located medical, legal, and mental health services in an integrated, holistic setting. Terra Firma is the first medical-legal partnership specifically designed for unaccompanied immigrant children in the community. As a programmatic partnership among Catholic Charities, Montefiore Medical Center, and the Children’s Health Fund, Terra Firma operates out of a federally qualified health center that serves all patients regardless of their ability to pay. “TF” is a patient-centered medical home located within one of the poorest Congressional districts in the United States and a community center and enclave for recently-arrived children with aspirations of fulfilling the American dream.

Light in a Time of Darkness

As we celebrate the resilience, courage, and perseverance of the patients and clients who comprise Terra Firma, we are obligated to acknowledge the daunting political moment in which we find ourselves. 2014 saw the highest ever number of unaccompanied immigrant children arrive to the United States, and yet it pales in comparison to the developments that followed.

The past few years have seen an onslaught of new attacks on our immigrant communities, including the tragic phenomena of family separation, the “Muslim ban,” and the attack on America’s “Dreamers.” It is in this era when the mettle of our immigrant communities is truly tested, along with our collective, national commitment to justice.

As a guiding principle, we at Terra Firma believe that lawyers, doctors, therapists, and advocates of all stripes must unite in our efforts to deliver life-saving and life-changing interventions to our new neighbors. For this generation of future Americans, we want to be part of the movement that lights the way.

From the Bronx to Texas to Migrants in Mexico

Our original inspiration to break down silos in service delivery now extends to a wider-array of

community activities, including photography workshops, English classes, and soccer games. Our work has taken us beyond the South Bronx, from detention centers in Texas to migrant shelters in Mexico. As always, our commitment to our patients and clients remains steadfast. On behalf of the children and families we serve, we thank you for your support.