FORENSIC ODONTOLOGY- MISSING AND UNIDENTIFIED PERSONS
So often we see or hear in a news report that an unidentified body had to be identified by dental records and this may cause us to feel remorse for the family. While the death and subsequent identification of a loved one is a reason for remorse, the fact that a positive legal identification can be accomplished in short time following the discovery is good news. Often a body is discovered and the hopes and fears of family are reawakened. These hopes and fears are not only felt by the families of missing persons, but also realized by the investigators working on the missing person case. Without fingerprints, the only hope for timely positive identification will be through dental records.
Many have felt that dental records have less importance since DNA technology has been employed for identification. Unfortunately, DNA is expensive and often takes weeks and sometimes months to be completed. It also is difficult and expensive to place DNA records in a database, such as is commonly done with dental records and radiographs.
Therefore, even with the advent of DNA, dental record comparison remains the primary means of identification if fingerprints are not available.
Dental records have been used for over 200 years in this country for the identification of deceased. The teeth are uniquely qualified for identification in many ways, but especially since they are virtually impossible to destroy. They survive fire, decomposition and submersion in water or earth for many years. This survivability and the fact that most persons have dental records is the key to the success of dental records for the identification of deceased. Even now, with many persons having no dental restorations, the teeth and their surrounding structures provide a myriad of distinctive characteristics useful in identification.
Although an accurate and positive identification can be made with dental records, two things must be available for the dental identification to proceed. First, the missing personís dental records have to be obtained and stored to allow immediate access for comparison with potential unknown remains. All too often odontologists are called to perform a dental comparison, only to find that the dental records of the missing person, who is the probable match, are unavailable or in some cases lost forever. And even if available, the records often take days to retrieve and this can result in a great deal of anxiety for the families and officials investigating the case.
The second important aspect of the dental identification process is to be certain that a complete and accurate dental examination is accomplished on unknown remains. This examination must include dental radiographs of the teeth and jaws. Without a complete examination the comparison process to a missing person record may not be possible due to incomplete dental information.
Unfortunately, there are many difficulties in obtaining the dental records of missing adults, but none more difficult than the new HIPPA Law. HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) was written to protect an individualís medical information; but as a result it precludes many from obtaining other persons dental records, even if they are an immediate family member. The release of records for a coroner or medical examiner engaged in the identification process is exempt, but without the missing person record a comparison cannot be made. Therefore, it is crucial for family members to request that the investigators obtain a court order to secure and store the missing persons dental records with the other investigation information. After this is done, a forensic dentist can then "translate" the records into a standardized format and place them in a missing persons database or even a website such as the Doenetwork.
Because of the importance of dental records and the need to secure them in a timely manner, volunteers with the Doenetwork will assist family members or law enforcement agencies with dental record retrieval, translation into a standard dental record format and the digitalization of the written and radiographic records for ease of storage and transmission by the internet. Volunteers are also available for the difficult completion of the dental record for NCIC database submission.
A number of states have also developed their own dental record database for missing and unidentified persons. Pennsylvania does not at this time have a dental database at this time, but we do share information with other states, particularly Maryland. Therefore, if you have a dental record of a missing or unidentified person and would like it to have it submitted to another state, please contact the Doenetwork.
Finally, forensic odontologists are available to conduct dental examinations and x-rays for coroners and medical examiners to insure a proper dental record is obtained before the final disposition of the unknown remains. If you need this assistance please contact the Doenetwork.
Should you have any need have any questions about dental identification or need any forensic dental assistance please contact:
Richard M. Scanlon, D.M.D.
Forensic Dental Consultant
27 Sandy Lane - Suite 206
Lewistown, PA 17044
Unless otherwise noted, please send any information and/or potential matches to the law enforcement agency or coroner/medical examiner listed on the case file(s). Thank you!