Northland 'tooth fairy' charged for making dentures

Dozens of people have turned out to a hui in Northland to show their support for a woman facing charges over claims she made hundreds of dentures without certification.

Kaikohe woman Claire Wihongi-Matene - known by locals as the "tooth fairy" - is facing seven charges brought by the Ministry of Health - one charge of claiming to be a health practitioner and six charges of performing a restricted activity. 

The 40-year-old mother of five faces up to $190,000 in fines and is awaiting trial. 

Wihongi-Matene has a fine arts degree and 10 years of experience making and repairing dentures in labs in Auckland and Hamilton. Her clients say she charged about a third of the price of dentists.

"My tupuna (ancestors) were tohunga (healers) - they helped heal people - and so I believe I was blessed with the ability to be able to help people and that's all I've ever wanted to do," she told The Hui. 

"I believe I was blessed with the ability to be able to help people and that's all I've ever wanted to do.

"It started off with like aunties and uncles and you know the whanau and just helping them out and then, of course, word of mouth - they told their friends and next minute like I just had people coming from all over."

Wihongi-Matene says she was helping her community, many of whom can't afford basic dental care. The Ministry of Health says what she was doing was illegal. 

While Wihongi-Matene was allowed to make dentures, she was not allowed to take moulds - which requires putting your hands in a client's mouth. 

The health department says she performed a "restricted activity" involved in the insertion and maintenance of dentures on members of the public "when she was not a health practitioner permitted to perform the activity". Restricted activities are limited to dentists and clinical dental technicians which takes a minimum of four years university-level training. 

Regulators say possible risks if an unqualified person carries out "restricted activities" in relation to the making of dentures include infection as well as trauma to the mouth due to ill-fitting or malfunctioning dentures.

Wihongi-Matene says she was compelled to help her community because of the high cost of dental care. Last month The Hui revealed people in the Far North are pulling out their teeth with pliers because they can't afford basic dental care. 

It was also revealed on average one person every fortnight is admitted to intensive care in the region due to poor oral health. 

"I guess the need just got greater and I saw that the needs weren't getting met," Wihongi-Matene said.

"People would rock up on the driveway and they're like, 'are you the tooth fairy?' And I'd just say, 'oh yeah, what do you need?'

"And it was really hard to just turn people away because I had the skill to do it.

"I felt the obligation to my people that I need to do this Mahi."

In 2015, Wihongi-Matene signed up to be a dentures supplier for Work and Income (WINZ) clients.

Over the next four years, she received $193,000 to make and repair dentures for 205 WINZ clients - around $900 per person, including materials. 

Wihongi-Matene told The Hui WINZ never asked what certification she had and she never lied to the agency. 

The Ministry of Social Development says it couldn't comment on the case because it's before the courts but said in a statement: "In general, it is the client's choice which supplier they choose to use, and WINZ manage the payment. However, suppliers are expected to meet the relevant regulatory standards imposed by regulatory authorities."

Wihongi-Matene's former clients spoken to by The Hui say they sought her out because she was so affordable. 

Former Treaty negotiator Avis Stewart says she was quoted $3500 for dentures from a dentist - money she didn't have. 

"I rent, I'm not a homeowner - we still needed to keep a roof over our head," she says.

Stewart says without dentures she struggled to find work because it knocked her confidence.

"It's degrading," she says. "I still have a little bit of vanity. I don't drink, what I enjoy is having my mokos smiling and having food on the table - that's what I've been taught - to work hard and feed my family."

She says without Wihongi-Matene she would be in a dire situation.

"I would be sitting at home living on 60 cents a week - not going out, too embarrassed to go out. It's a service that could never have been done if we didn't have people like Claire."

Claire Wihongi-Matene.
Claire Wihongi-Matene. Photo credit: The Hui

In April last year, Wihongi-Matene said staff from the Ministry of Health and police came to her property which she described as a raid. 

"I was a bit dumbfounded because I was just like, 'what are they here for?' It felt like I was getting raided for drugs or something like that," Wihongi-Matene says.

It was then the Ministry of Health laid charges. It's understood the agency launched its investigation - not after complaints from clients but from local dentists.

While in Kaikohe, The Hui spoke to one dentist who said dozens of Wihongi-Matene's clients came to them because they were unhappy with their dentures. They described Wihongi-Matene as "reckless" and said many of her dentures were poorly made. 

When asked whether she carried out poor quality work, Wihongi-Matene responded: "Not to my knowledge, no. I tried to the best of my ability. 

"There is a small percentage of jobs [that] is quite difficult and it's quite difficult to get a good outcome sometimes - you know you do have to persevere a lot with dentures and keep wearing them and let your mouth adjust. If there is an imperfection in a job I'll point it out to them, and I'll say look if you're not happy with anything then come back, let me know."

Many of Wihongi-Matene's former clients attended a recent hui at a marae near Kaikohe to highlight the desperate need for affordable dental care in Northland. Everyone spoken to by The Hui praised Wihongi-Matene's work. 

"She could be the template for future rangatahi (young people) to follow along in her footsteps to do exactly what she's doing to help our people," John Tahana says.

When asked about Wihongi-Matene's dentures, community leader Moe Milne says: "Oh fantastic, absolutely fantastic. My teeth from Caire - I've had no problems whatsoever."

Another former client, Gloria Davis, adds: "I've known her for two years and she's out there not to make the big money like everybody else she's out there for the people. She's just as good as anyone that is certified in fact I'd say she's better."

Jim Hotene says: "She is doing it for the people who really can't afford teeth because they are expensive - she's trying to help the not so rich people so to me she is doing a good thing and it's sad that they're trying to knock her for it."

Wihongi-Matene says she has never claimed to be a dental technician or clinical dental technician. 

The issue of whether or not Wihongi-Matene is registered to carry out the work will be key to her defence. She believes that under Te Whakaputanga, the New Zealand Declaration of Independence signed five years before the Te Tiriti o Waitangi, she is entitled to make dentures with the endorsement of her community - which she has.

"Under l.a.w I'm not registered but under Tikanga Māori and l.o.r.e I am registered with my people. Ngapuhi never ceded sovereignty and the acceptance of my people is the registration that I have," Wihongi-Matene says

Kaumatua Danny Watson adds: "She has stood up and made teeth for us that we couldn't afford that they say she is unlicenced to make. That's in their [the Government] waka, in our waka the very fact that we tautoko (support) her gives her license to practice. 

"Otherwise we wouldn't knock on her door, it's pretty simple."

Health Minister Andrew Little declined a request for an interview to discuss dental care in Northland. The Ministry of Health and Ministry for Social Development declined to be interviewed for this story as it is before the courts. 

The Hui