Columns 2009

Braces can make a difference

A judge recently ruled that the state had to provide braces for children in state custody if, in fact, a dentist determined they were needed. A small victory but one of great importance to children being raised by the state because their parents can’t quite find the time to do it.

A few years back, there was a young girl on my GAL caseload who had dental needs. She was one of those kids that just worm their way right into your heart. She was bright, pretty, charming and should have been having a wonderful childhood. But instead, she was being raised by the state.

This young lady had what I call “fangs”. She had her upper canine teeth and then she had another canine tooth growing right on top of each of them. It was glaringly evident when she smiled.

When I spoke to the state about getting her teeth fixed, I was told that she would need to have a much more severe problem before they would pay for the extraction and braces she needed.  That just really ticked me off.

Kids in foster care already have so many strikes against them. They often come from violent homes. They have usually been victims of abuse and neglect. They are the new kids in school so often they should form a band with that name. Their clothes come from a state clothing allowance that does not usually provide for the latest of anything. To put it mildly, they often feel pretty bad about themselves.

All I could think was that, on top of all this other stuff, this little girl was never going to be able to look in the mirror without seeing a pair of fang like teeth staring back out at her.

So I got pushy – all the way to Juneau pushy. Eventually, probably just to shut me up, the state authorized her dental care. And in all the rest of the time this child remained in state custody, which was until she turned 18, no matter what else was happening in her life, she never missed her dental appointments or failed to notify her new caretakers of the need to get her an appointment if her living arrangement had changed since the last one.

Once she got out of custody, I lost touch with her. That’s not unusual. When you’ve had a less than fun childhood being raised by the state and a superior court judge, you don’t often have warm, fuzzy memories of those times and tend to lose contact. But before she aged out of the system, she had her braces taken off. Her foster mom got us together so I could see the results. They were dazzling. When this child smiled, her smile lit up the room.

I’m telling this story not to say how wonderful I am. Lots of people fought right along side me to get this kid her braces. I’m telling this story to try and help people understand how important it is that we give these kids every chance we can to form a healthy self-image. And sometimes that includes paying for braces.

When these kids enter the system, they are already traumatized by their families. Most feel pretty badly about themselves and their lives.

Entering the system and being introduced to judges and social workers and foster parents and counselors – all of whom seem to have access to every horrible thing that every happened to them – adds to their trauma.  They never know what tomorrow will hold because they never know when someone is going to decide to send them somewhere else. All these things just add to the extreme difficulties kids face in foster care – not because foster care is inherently bad but because for most, it will never replace the family they lost… or in some cases, never really had.

So if giving these kids proper dental care results in a pretty smile, in giving them a reason to feel good about themselves, to feel they might have some self-worth… well, to me that alone justifies whatever those braces may cost.

I think of that young girl’s smile and know that we did at least one thing right by her.