Children’s Dental Angel Fund offers hope for ‘destroyed’ mouths

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – A toothache is a memorable experience, and one few would wish to repeat. But for children who lack dental care, toothaches can be chronic, and just the beginning of the pain their bad teeth will bring them.

When a child’s deteriorating dental health becomes a serious medical issue, there is an option – the Union Labor Health Foundation’s Children’s Dental Angel Fund (CDAF). Administered by the Humboldt Area Foundation, the CDAF was created in 2001 to rescue youth  ages 19 or younger with dental emergencies for whom money is all that’s between them and relief.

There are a number of reasons why children wind up in dire dental straits.

One is availability of dental care, as Humboldt County suffers from a crippling dentist shortage.

Dr. Robert Berg

Dr. Robert Berg

“We’re grossly underserved,” said Dr. Robert Berg, a retired dentist who now heads up the CDAF. “All the dentists are so overworked and busy.” He said some dental patients have to travel to Redding, Windsor or Laytonville for treatment.

Or maybe the family approaches dental care as one might treat a leaky roof on a sunny day – ignore the problem by foregoing regular dental care until it’s an emergency.

Sometimes it’s cultural, or culture shockeral. “When kids relocate, coming from a different culture with different food, it seems to throw them off,” Berg said.

Some cultures – not necessarily excluding the dominant one – are “big on sweets,” which can leave a child’s mouth “bombed out,” Berg said.

All too often, well-intentioned mothers might fill a baby’s bottle with “fruit juice or worse,” Berg said, and put them to bed. But “natural” or otherwise, the sugary drinks quickly take their toll. “They think, ‘juice, oh that’s good’,” Berg said.  “It doesn’t take long for a mouth to be destroyed by that.”

When a child’s lack of preventive care creates a situation that has to be dealt with, parents without a family dentist find out quickly that getting proper care quickly from a standing start is like, well, pulling teeth.

In 2012, some 900,000 children enrolled in the Healthy Families program were transferred to Medi-Cal as part of budget deal that saved the state upwards of $13 million. That effectively locked many low-income families out of the dentist’s office, since many of Humboldt’s limited pool of dentists don’t accept Medi-Cal.

That’s where the Children’s Dental Angel Fund comes in. Created in 2001, the fund attempts to help out dentally ailing youth in situations where emergency funds are desperately needed.

“Typically, they’re kids 19 years and younger that have moderate to severe problems, are low-income and can’t afford to pay for their dental care,” Berg said.

They don’t just hand you a pile of cash and tell you to go to the dentist. In fact, you can’t even apply directly. There’s a process, and it begins at your new “dental home.”

That’s the dental care facility that takes your information, prepares your CDAF application and will perform the treatment, then – and this is key – follow up with sustained care from there on out. A case manager is assigned to help ensure continuity of care into the future.

“We consider a dental home essential, for checkups and to develop a dental relationship,” Berg said. “Without follow up and regular care, there’s not much hope for long-term success.”

On first contact, the participating dentist creates an itemized pre-treatment plan, which is submitted to fund managers along with the application, in order for a request to be considered.

Guidelines, listed on the CDAF website, include the allowed age range of up to 19 years old, Humboldt County residency, financial need and the existence of a genuine emergency with no other options for treatment.

The application and plan are then considered by Berg and his board, comprised of medical pros from various disciplines and community members. Only the child’s first name and dental situation are known to them.

Due to funding realities, only emergencies can be considered. “We survey what services are available and depending on the nature of the case, we’ll pay for treatment by a private dentist or send them to a clinic,” Berg said.

The follow-through is crucial. Rescuing a child from a single dental crisis doesn’t protect them from the range of enduring harms a rotten mouth can inflict on their lives.

“It makes it hard for them to eat nutritious food,” said Amy Jester, ULHF program manager. “It affects their concentration in school, and there are self-conscious impacts.”

The latter refers to the profound undermining of confidence a troubled mouth can bring. A child with bad teeth may have a compromised smile, and suffer social impairments that compromise self-confidence into adulthood. Dating and job interviews? Good luck with that, kid.

CDAF’s budget is about $40,000 per year, “which isn’t much,” noted Berg.

A typical treatment grant might be in the $1,000 to $1,500 range, or up to $3,000. Travel grants to help a child get treatments out of the area might be $200.

Thirty-nine children were provided assistance last year, mostly with root canals. Berg would love for the program to be able to expand.

“Our goal is to network with more dentists and set up a service where we’re funneling patients to dentists who work with us to give comprehensive services,” Berg said. This is a real need, and it’s not going to be met real soon.

Donations to CDAF are tax deductible. For more information, including participating dentists, contact Lynn Langdon, grants coordinator at (707) 442-2417 or [email protected]

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