Q: What is forensic odontology?
A: Its basic definition is the scientific application of dental knowledge to criminal and civil law matters. We are often involved in 4 main categories of cases: identification, age assessment, civil litigation, and bitemark analysis. Most of our work is usually scientific identification in cases where the human remains are not identifiable via other methods such as visuals or fingerprints.
Q: What does it take to be involved in forensic odontology?
A: Basically, all you need to be is a dentist, hygienist, or assistant with a willingness and a stomach for dealing with human remains in various degrees of decomposition or trauma. Many states have forensic identification teams that may be called upon when a mass disaster occurs. They are composed of volunteer dentists and auxiliaries who can dedicate time to a specific location and help with the identification process. Only dentists can make the final comparison. However, many auxiliaries are very vital to the team and are often much better at taking radiographs than the dentist!
Q: How much forensic odontology work is there?
A: The majority of dental professionals involved in forensic odontology work as volunteers on state identification teams or on a case-by-case basis for medical examiners and coroners. Very few dental professionals can say they work on a full-time basis or make a significant amount of income from cases.
Q: How can I get forensic odontology training?
A: For starters, check out your state forensic identification team and dental society for any training courses they may have. Sometimes you can find some forensic presentations at the ADA and other dental meetings. The American Society of Forensic Odontologists (ASFO [asfo.org]) is also a great place to start. The ASFO has an annual meeting that coincides with the American Academy of Forensic Sciences’ (AAFS [aafs.org]) annual conference, and any dental professional can join for a small membership fee. The ASFO also has online resources. You can purchase the ASFO Manual of Forensic Odontology, which contains a wealth of information for anyone wanting to learn more about forensic odontology. When you are ready to take your training to the next level, there are more advanced training opportunities with the University of Detroit Mercy, Lincoln Memorial University, and McGill University. For dentists, after the completion of more training and some significant case involvement, they can then become board-certified forensic odontologists by challenging the boards with the American Board of Forensic Odontology (ABFO [abfo.org]).
Q: How long does it take to become board-certified?
A: If being a forensic odontologist is for you, it will take significant dedication, expense, and time to become board-certified. To challenge the boards with the ABFO, you will need to be formally affiliated with a medical/legal agency and have completed a minimum of 32 forensic dental cases ranging from bitemark analysis to dental age assessment and attended a minimum of 4 forensic meetings (eg, AAFS, ASFO) and have participated (as a presenter, moderator, etc) in a minimum of 2. Altogether, the minimum amount of time is usually around 5 years, with most candidates taking between 5 to 10 years. A full description of the requirements can be found on the ABFO website.
Q: How do I get involved with an agency?
A: That can be one of the hardest things to accomplish! Joining your state team and groups such as the AAFS and ASFO is a great start; however, to get the required forensic cases, you will need to have an affiliation with a medical examiner or coroner. Most forensic offices will already have a forensic odontologist for their cases. As mentioned before, there are typically not a lot of cases. The best plan is to find out who is the forensic odontologist for your local forensic office and ask him or her to be your mentor. If he or she agrees, you can start to build your case history and learn along the way.
Q: What is the hardest part of being a forensic dentist?
A: One of the first things I discuss with anyone wanting to become involved in forensic dentistry is the type of cases we see. Not everyone has the stomach to deal with seeing human remains, especially after significant trauma, fire, or decomposition. Also, anytime children are involved, it can be especially difficult to keep emotionally separated. For me, I like to focus on the work we are doing, helping to provide an identification for an unknown individual, bring some closure or answers to a grieving family, or be a voice for the victims of abuse and violence who don’t have a voice anymore.
Overall, being a board-certified forensic odontologist is very challenging but also very rewarding at the same time. It isn’t for everyone; however, if you choose to join this relatively small group, you will find interesting and exciting ways to use your dental knowledge and skills beyond the daily dentistry in your office!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Draft graduated Hope College with a BS in Chemistry, then attended the University of Michigan School of Dentistry and graduated in 1998. In 2018, he became a board-certified forensic odontologist with the American Board of Forensic Odontology. He uses his dental skills to identify human remains, providing dental age estimations, and provide analysis of bitemark evidence. Dr. Draft is the chief forensic odontologist for the Kalamazoo County Medical Examiner and also provides forensic services for the Laboratoire de sciences judiciaires et de médecine légale (LSJML) in Montreal. He has been practicing dentistry in Grandville, Mich. for almost 25 years and now also practices in Montreal with his wife, Dr. Corinne D’Anjou. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.