It all started with a hidden population’s need: Many foster care children in Los Angeles County weren’t able to find dental care.

This spring, the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC, in partnership with the Violence Intervention Program (VIP) and the office of Los Angeles County First District Supervisor Hilda Solis have opened the Pediatric Dental Clinic (PDC) in the Village at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.

The idea for the PDC started with VIP’s Astrid Heger, MD, who approached Roseann Mulligan, DDS, in 2011 about this special population of children.

“For the longest time, foster children have had an unmet need for dental care. It is often the first or second most-cited need,” Mulligan said. “This lack of care is in part due to the frequent moves from family to family that foster children undergo, which does not allow the discovery and building of a relationship with a nearby dental office.”

By locating all health care services at one site — the Village at LAC+USC Medical Center — foster children will now have a place where they can receive dental care, integrated with their medical care, on a regular basis, Mulligan explained.

“The PDC’s ability to meet the oral health needs of foster children and especially to provide ongoing preventive care has been lacking for far too long for these at-risk children,” she added.

The PDC is part of an $18.4 million grant received by the Ostrow School in 2012 from First 5 LA to fund the Children’s Health and Maintenance Project (CHAMP) grant. The goal of the CHAMP grant is to reach an overall target population of 45,000 children.

“The initial construction funds for the PDC were also supplied by First 5 LA and granted to Dr. Heger to build a dental clinic that would care for 0-5 year olds,” Mulligan said.

The PDC participates in the training of 10 Ostrow School advanced pediatric dental residents, with the hopes that the experience will increase the resident’s desire to help underserved populations in the future.

Mulligan, who serves as the Ostrow School’s associate dean of community health programs and hospital affairs, has a personal goal to get oral health services to people that don’t have any other access. Whether it’s foster children, the developmentally disabled, geriatric patients or homeless vets (to name just a few discrete populations the Ostrow School serves), she believes that oral health care should be available to all.

“I think it’s important to your overall systemic well-being as well as your psychological outlook,” Mulligan said. “There are many populations where the lack of good oral health has a profound effect on individuals, the quality of their life, potentially their ability to get jobs, their ability to do well in school.”

Staffed by Ostrow School pediatric dentistry faculty, the three-chair clinic had its soft opening in early February and has been providing up to 20 oral screenings a day for foster children who come to the Village at LAC+USC for their medical visits. In addition, the clinic provides toothbrushes and toothpaste, helps the children brush their teeth and educates the foster parents on the importance of oral health care.

Within the next few months, pre-doctoral dental students who have expressed an interest in caring for very young children will also be participating in the PDC experience.

— Breanne Grady