The role of Forensic Dentistry in the aftermath of the Black Saturday Bushfires
Seven years ago the VIFM in Southbank became the epicentre of the largest Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) exercise that has ever been undertaken in Australia. On Saturday 7 February 2009, 173 people were tragically killed in a series of devastating bushfires in regional Victoria.
In the aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfires forensic specialists from around Australia and overseas converged on the Institute to assist in the enormous task of identifying the remains of the victims.
Among the forensic specialists were a large number of forensic dental practitioners who (under the supervision of VIFM’s Forensic odontologists) collected and assessed the ante-mortem (before death) medical and dental records of those believed to have died in the fires, conducted dental examinations of the deceased, and provided advice to the State Coroner concerning positive identification of the victims. This was a major logistical exercise which required the cooperation and assistance from treating dentists and medical practitioners and next of kin.
While the most common method used to identify the deceased in all jurisdictions is usually visual recognition by a relative or close friend, this is not always possible in the aftermath of disasters such as the 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires. In these circumstances, Forensic Odontology plays a vital role in disaster victim identification.
The VIFM is extremely grateful for the assistance of the families of those who lost their lives on Black Saturday. Without their support, the arduous task of identifying each of the victims would have been much more challenging and delayed.
The Importance of Identification
Judge Hal Hallenstein (Victorian State Coroner, 1986-94) held a firm view on the importance of identifying the dead: “It is a hallmark of our civilization that we regard it as an affront, an indignity, an abrogation of our responsibilities, that a person could live amongst us, die and be buried without a name”.
This sentiment is enshrined in the Victorian 2008 Coroners Act (section 67), which states “A coroner investigating a death must find, if possible, the identity of the deceased…”
Legal identification of the deceased not only has many legal and financial implications for the next of kin, it also allows family and friends the comfort of burial rites.
How Does Forensic Dentistry Assist with DVI?
Forensic Odontology is the application of advanced dental knowledge to ensure the proper handling, examination and evaluation of dental evidence, which will be then presented in the interest of justice. Forensic dental assessment provides a rapid and effective identification of the deceased. Access to ante-mortem dental records plays an important role in the identification process. In countries such as Australia, the laws concerning medical record keeping ensure that dental records are mostly of good quality and easy to locate in the event that they are required.
In some parts of the world this is not the case and identification of the deceased in developing nations is a serious and ongoing issue for governments and humanitarian organisations. Good record keeping is not only of benefit to forensic practitioners, but is also relevant to improved health services and outcomes for patients in general, so the role of the odontologist includes educating health authorities about the importance of good medical good record keeping.
Other Ways Forensic Dentistry Benefits Public Health
Bite Mark Interpretation
Bite mark interpretation is probably the first application of Forensic Odontology that comes to the layperson’s mind. This entails the assessment of skin injuries which are suspected to have been caused by human or animal teeth. This area of forensic practice is fraught with difficulty as the highly subjective nature of the conclusions reached is almost completely based on opinion rather than scientific research.
Craniofacial Trauma Analysis
Craniofacial trauma analysis is a growing area of forensic odontology practice. Forensic dentists examine both living and deceased individuals and provide an accurate anatomical description of the injuries, and occasionally are asked to provide opinions on degree of force, direction of force application, and possible number of blows that were inflicted. Occasionally opinions are also sought regarding the exact nature of the weapon used, although caution needs to be exercised in this regard, as unless the implement bears unique characteristics which are imparted to the body, interpretation is very difficult.
Age estimation has always been a function of the Forensic Odontologist, and traditionally has been based on interpretation of dental development and comparison to published tooth development standards. The majority of age estimation work has concentrated on the ageing of children up to 15 years. Beyond this age dental development becomes relatively unreliable. Odontologists are currently researching methods to more accurately estimate the age of older individuals, around the adult/child demarcation age of 18 years. This is increasingly important because of the need to determine the legal status of individuals such as asylum seekers, accused people smugglers, child soldiers, and victims of sexual assault for individuals without proof of age documentation.
Forensic Dentistry Short Course:
Disaster Victim Identification (2-5 June 2016)
Over four days in June 2016, The VIFM (in conjunction with the Department of Forensic Medicine, Monash University) will be running a short course designed for dentists who are interested in learning about the role of dentistry in Disaster Victim Identification (DVI), including permanent and Reserve members of the Australian Defence Force. The course covers DVI, including Interpol protocols, mortuary protocols, how we work with other forensic specialists, medico-legal report writing and appearing as an expert witness.
The course will include case studies, practical exercises and scenario-based training. The course will be led by two senior forensic odontologists with extensive experience in DVI (Indian Ocean Tsunami 2005, Black Saturday 2009, MH17 plane crash). Guest lectures will be presented by forensic pathologists, a forensic anthropologist, the VIFM Mortuary Manager and a DNA expert.