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Still Wanting a Dentist


My Spot-on colleague Mike Spinney has found an excellent political Rorschach test. This Washington Post article describes how 12-year-old Deamonte Driver of Maryland died after an infection from an abscessed tooth spread to his brain, with the story highlighting the family’s lack of dental insurance, or easily accessible care even with Medicaid coverage. Missing from the story, Spinney argued, was any mention of personal responsibility – including that a parent needs to get her kids to brush their teeth.

Reading the article I came away with a different take. For this story, on the scale from “bootstrap self-help backer” to “squishy government handout supporter”, you can chalk me up on the squishy side; it definitely struck me as one where the family wasn’t getting support it needed and where, yes, a safety net should be in place.

Although you can’t judge a mother’s actions based on one snapshot of how a family is (but who resists when we read articles like this?), it strikes me that the mother Alyce was trying her best to negotiate a difficult path and get help in the middle of tough personal circumstances, including multiple low-paying jobs and homelessness. Reporter Mary Otto detailed the different attempts the mother made and the hurdles she faced.

The reporter also points out that the mother was focusing on getting the younger son’s teeth taken care of, since he had been complaining of pain while the older son hadn’t said he had a problem. You sense that the reporter was careful to put in these details because she knew many readers’ first reaction would be, “Why didn’t she get the kid to a dentist?”

What’s also interesting is what is left out – there’s no mention of the father, so you have to assume the mom was handling things on her own.

It’s hard enough to keep a handle on family medical treatments when you have decent insurance and the time-honored suburban method of the big family appointments calendar in the kitchen; it’s tough to imagine how you keep everything together when that doesn’t work because you don’t have a kitchen – let alone a phone.

We also have no idea what kind of personal care habits the kids had or the mother tried to enforce. They could have been regular brushers who simply had bad teeth; it happens, while some brushing neglectors get lucky the other way. (Do not tell that to your kids.) But does it really matter? Whether or not a parent was neglectful, a child who needs care certainly isn’t responsible for his parent’s actions. Or if parental responsibility is the standard, then child abuse victims’ care should be exempt from public coverage – after all, parental action directly causes the need for treatment.

And whether you’re an obsessive flosser or pay no attention to your teeth, who knew that a bad tooth could kill you? In a life full of other pressing concerns, I could imagine putting teeth in the category of something safe to ignore unless they’re causing pain. I did it myself while we settled in to living abroad, although now I imagine many of us parents have something new to add to our list of worries.

Spinney mentions other sources of inexpensive dental care that are available. That’s a good point, but they also would have taken even more effort to find and use. The mom was already putting in her energy trying to get help from a system that she thought would work. And it should have. Why make a family run a pointless gauntlet? Why should it be so tough just to see a dentist? There should have been an easy way for a poor child to get the care he needed.

Share  Posted by Deborah Klosky at 1:20 AM | Permalink

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