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Oral Health Care Needs of Young Adults Transitioning from Foster Care

There are many challenges that face children who age out of the foster care system, including education, housing, and health care. One rarely-addressed challenge is oral health care. Children who have aged out of the foster care system face considerable barriers in accessing oral health care. Although this population of foster care alumni may have Medicaid insurance while they are in care to cover dental care, 39 percent of youths who have aged out of foster care do not have dental insurance.

In a recent issue of the NASW Press-published journal Health & Social Work, researchers released their findings on a mixed-methods study examined the factors that contribute to the oral health care disparities of children who have transitioned from foster care.

The study found that foster care alumni without dental insurance are 93.5 percent less likely to have their dental needs met than those with dental insurance. Additionally, their analysis revealed several themes around the issue of oral health care for former foster youths:

  • Ongoing need for treatment of serious dental problems
  • Difficulties accessing dental care with Medicaid, without insurance, or inadequate income to pay
  • Lack of information on continuing Medicaid eligibility when exiting foster care
  • Stress and resilience due to the lack of dental care
  • Quality-of-life implications of poor oral health
  • Inconsistent dental care received in foster care

In the article, the researchers addressed the challenges around these themes at length.

This study highlighted the fact that having dental insurance has a unique and significant impact on oral health, even when race, gender, age, and permanency arrangement are controlled for foster care alumni. Having appropriate dental care is crucial to overall health, quality of life, and employability. Poor dental health care can lead to systemic health issues in the form of heart and lung disease, strokes, and problems with pregnancy and diabetes. The findings from this study indicated that access to insurance is the most important factor, but that these associations warrant further studies that are longitudinal with larger sample sizes. Considering the high percentage of social workers who are employed as community health workers, and the profession’s commitment to social justice, including the eradication of health disparities of vulnerable populations, such as children placed in out-of-home care settings, social workers are uniquely positioned to provide leadership in the development of policy and practices that promote increased access and service utilization of oral health care treatments. As oral health care is directly related to overall health, it should be given the same priority for prevention and intervention as other forms of physical health care. The ACA called for the provision of health care benefits for youths who age out of the United States’ foster care system through age 26. The researchers called for this provision to be expanded to include support for dental coverage to ensure that foster care alumni are in the best health as they forge their paths into adulthood.

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