How this pediatrician is working to protect the health of incarcerated kids


Photo: Dr. Elizabeth Barnert, assistant professor of pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. (Photo credit: UCLA Health)

Los Angeles County has the largest juvenile justice system in the nation, consisting of more than 8,000 minors detained in juvenile halls and probation camps each year. With many adolescents facing imprisonment at a young age, Dr. Elizabeth Barnert has made it her mission to understand the impact of juvenile incarceration on youths and how it impacts their health care.

"Many kids in the juvenile justice system have special health care needs – whether from undiagnosed psychiatric disorders, traumatic circumstances or certain disabilities, which often go unmet," says Barnert, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "When we put these children into the system or lock them away, we can make their problems worse, or at the very least, leave them untreated."

Working with adolescents at risk for imprisonment isn't what most people imagine a pediatrician does, but Barnert sees her job as going beyond the clinic.

"As pediatricians, we see firsthand the impact of policy on the health needs of these kids," says Barnert. "We have to provide better alternatives than simply putting them behind bars. They need some sort of safety net."

Prior to 2017, for example, children under 18 years of age in California could be convicted for commercial sex acts and prostitution. Barnert argued these children were victims of sex trafficking instead. Her research, highlighting the health needs of sexually exploited children and the dangers posed by incarceration, was instrumental in getting legislation passed in California to classify such minors as victims rather than criminals.

Working with California legislators in Sacramento is something Barnert does often. She supplies research and information relevant to new bills affecting public health policy, information often cited by lawmakers in their support or opposition to certain proposals.

Barnert now is hoping to expand alternatives for minors at risk of imprisonment. Her research shows that juveniles under age 12 have a limited capacity for decision-making and limited ability to wage their own defense in court. Her research has led to a bill – SB 439 – that would exclude youths under 12 from incarceration and instead offer alternatives for rehabilitation, such as child welfare services and community approaches.

"We're in a very strong place to provide data that can inform policy decisions," she says. "And policymakers are hungry for data."