Hinman Connects Blog

A Career Greatly Enhanced by Forensic Science
Posted: 6/21/2019

By: Amber Riley, MS, RDH, FAAFS

DMORT Teams (10 regions) are comprised of every specialty indicated in medical (death) investigation, including dentistry.  As of now, there are 126 ‘DMORTers’ that comprise the odontology section, 102 dentists, 17 hygienists and seven assistants.


I graduated from Sinclair College, in my hometown Dayton, Ohio with an Associate Degree in Dental Hygiene and started my academic and professional career. While a student of dental hygiene, my professor, Dr. Stephen Holliday, briefly recounted a case that required dental records to make a positive identification of the severely decomposed remains of a young woman. One photo of the remains, contrasted to the photo of the identified decedent, fascinated me. His objective was to underscore the often unseen importance of accurate dental records, diagnostic and explanatory images (including radiographs and photographs). In addition, the dental provider has the responsibility to protect the validity of that record for the long haul (not just the minimum number of years that your state dental board dictates* or even just the seven years the ADA recommends). He moved on, having made his point, but a forensic dentistry seed was planted for me that day. 

After graduation, I began to research forensic dentistry: immersion courses, study clubs, fellowships, internships, academic and membership societies that are centered around this area of forensic science.  I quickly learned that forensic work is not a departure from patient-based practice as there is not a high enough demand for a steady caseload in human identification.  I was not deterred since I was not seeking an alternative career. Many dental professionals contact me for direction and career advice. I always tell them that, in my experience, my day job pays the bills (not the nights and weekends at the morgue).   

Looking back over my now nearly 20 years of practicing in forensic odontology, the work clinically, at most times, is rather circumspect. We have protocols, a chain of command, a chain of evidentiary custody and we each share and respect the Code of Ethics to which all members of the forensic professions must adhere.  Though it may be cliché, each case is still different, regardless of the process of examination that is required to name the unnamed.  Each person has a family and a history left behind. 

The decedents are from all walks of life. I’ve given identity opinions to medical examiners and death investigators on the remains of decorated war heroes, children, elders, criminals, murderers, rapists, the wealthy and the destitute.  A confirmed, positive identification of a dead suspect is just as fundamental to a criminal investigation, to close it or to direct or redirect investigations, and to link multiple cases together.  It has been my experience that odontology has been used for a dental identification from known existing dental records, as well as extracting teeth from the decedent for DNA analysis.  Dental pulp is a fantastic and rich source of both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA.  When the rest of the body is decomposed, fragmented, burned or skeletonized, many times the teeth remain!

The unnamed can be many such as when a disaster occurs. Regardless of the origin of the event, whether it be from a natural event such as weather or wild fires or something else like an aircraft crash or act of terrorism.  Numerous nations, including the United States, activate a strictly structured, federalized mortuary affairs unit to manage the dead.  This activation is important if the number of fatalities is too high to be managed efficiently and appropriately by the jurisdiction in which the incident occurred. 

DMORT - Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Team


In the United States, that team is DMORT, Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Team.  DMORT Teams (10 regions) are comprised of every specialty indicated in medical (death) investigation, including dentistry.  As of now, there are 126 ‘DMORTers’ that comprise the odontology section, 102 dentists, 17 hygienists and seven assistants. I am proud to be a member of this team.

With the federal team reaching every state, I also work with my home state’s dental identification and mortuary services team.  It is housed under the California State Department of Emergency Services (CalOES) and with my county emergency mortuary team for planning, preparedness and disaster fatality response.  

Skills, knowledge and technologies available to disaster response are dynamic and so are our team members.  What works for some incidents, does not work for others. I was honored to present an oral abstract at the 30th INTERPOL Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) Conference in Singapore May 14-16, 2019.   Colleagues, experts and specialists from numerous elite law enforcement and forensic science fields, representing dozens of the 194 member countries of INTERPOL, were in attendance. 

Our objectives were to:

·  Share information and experiences through case studies and presentations on recent incidents

·  Continue the development of cooperation among member countries

·  Identify common areas of concern and identify solutions to problems

·  Recommend good and best practices

·  Enhance cooperation with other INTERPOL working groups and non-police agencies (forensic science institutions, commercial concerns, NGOs, etc.) to further develop DVI cooperation and support strategies

It was an amazing conference from beginning to end. It was to become more important to me professionally that I would be the first hygienist invited to attend the conference in the meeting's 30-year history.  The honor was mine, but it also represented the strength of odontology in DVI operations as well as growth of qualified, licensed dental professionals on teams around the globe. We all work side-by-side to serve law enforcement, and to provide closure for the families and survivors.

*16 states have no minimum dental record retention standards dictated in their dental practice act.  Other states retain records for as few as four and up to 10 years after the date of last record entry for adults.  For persons under the age of 21, dental records are required to be kept through the patient’s 21st birthday after the date of last record entry in all states. 

Amber Riley

Ms. Riley is a 1998 graduate of Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio.  She completed her Baccalaureate with Wright State University and Masters at Boston University.  In addition to private practice in San Diego, CA, Amber is a nationally recognized subject matter expert and consultant, and she is the Forensic Dental Autopsy Technician for the San Diego County Office of the Medical Examiner.  She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, Member of the CDHA, American Society of Forensic Odontology, and American Academy for Oral Systemic Health. She serves on the RDH advisory panel for the Oral Cancer Foundation and lectures internationally on the topics of Oral Pathology, Forensic Odontology, Oral-Systemic Inflammatory Disease, Laser-assisted Periodontal Therapies and the Dental Management of Medically Complex Patients.  

She will speak at the 2020 Hinman Dental Meeting, March 19-21, on pathophysiology & forensic dentistry. Registration opens December 10, 2019.  

The Hinman Dental Society of Atlanta  • 33 Lenox Pointe NE, Atlanta, GA 30324-3172  • Tel: (404) 231-1663  • Copyright © 1996-2023 Hinman Dental Society of Atlanta