Motherisk hair testing scandal timeline

Read more about the Motherisk Drug Testing Laboratory's history and the scandal that engulfed it in this timeline by Rachel  Mendleson of The Toronto Star.

1985: Motherisk is born

Dr. Gideon Koren, a clinical pharmacologist and toxicologist, creates the Motherisk Program at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. Within five years, Motherisk becomes a leading resource for pregnant and lactating women and their doctors about the effects of medication, alcohol and street drugs, and opens a research lab.

1999: From research to selling

The focus of Motherisk’s lab evolves from studying drugs in hair to selling its hair-testing services for use in child protection and criminal cases. Motherisk soon begins actively marketing the tests exposure to child welfare agencies as a means of quantifying drug use and exposure. (VIDEO - Phyllis Lovell describes sales pitch)

2000: Grounds for dismissal

Koren is fined and suspended for “repeatedly lying” and showing a “reckless dereliction of duty” for his conduct during a high-profile dispute with whistleblower colleague Dr. Nancy Olivieri. The former presidents of SickKids and the University of Toronto found his actions constituted “sufficient grounds for dismissal.” (VIDEO - Brenda Gallie clip)

2008: Red flags missed

The Goudge Inquiry into the devastating mistakes of Sick Kids forensic pathologist Charles Smith that tainted more than a dozen criminal cases exposes the dangers of performing forensic services without proper forensic training. No audit is conducted by SickKids to identify similar oversight lapses in other departments.

Oct. 14, 2014: Cocaine convictions tossed

The Ontario Court of Appeal overturns the cocaine-related convictions of Toronto mom Tamara Broomfield after expert evidence questions the reliability of Motherisk’s hair tests. Broomfield was convicted in 2009 of feeding her toddler cocaine for more than a year leading up to a near-fatal overdose. Her conviction was based in part on Motherisk’s tests of the boy’s hair.

Nov. 2014: Star investigates

Following the ruling in the Broomfield case, the Star publishes stories raising questions about Motherisk’s testing, which is now routinely relied on in child protection cases across the country. For weeks, SickKids and the government defend the reliability of Motherisk’s hair tests.

Nov. 26, 2014: Review launched

The Ontario government appoints retired judge Susan Lang to lead an independent review into the “adequacy and reliability” of hair drug tests performed by Motherisk from 2005 to 2010. Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur describes the review as a “first step” that could spark a larger inquiry.

March 5, 2015: Operations suspended

Sick Kids suspends “all non-research operations” at Motherisk, citing “questions … that require further analysis.” As it was later revealed, Sick Kids had recently learned it had been misled about Motherisk’s proficiency testing. The next month, the hospital shut the hair-testing lab for good.

March 12, 2015: Canada-wide implications

The Star reports that Motherisk’s hair tests were used as evidence in child protection and criminal cases outside of Ontario, including in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, British Columbia and Quebec, signalling the potentially wide-reaching implications of Lang’s review.

April 22, 2015: Expanded mandate

Following calls by criminal and family lawyers to broaden the scope of the review, Lang’s mandate is expanded to cover Motherisk’s hair testing between 2005 to 2015. The province directs Ontario’s children’s aid societies to stop relying on hair testing in child protection cases.

Oct. 15, 2015: Mea culpa

Sick Kids CEO Michael Apkon issues a public apology for “unacceptable” practices at Motherisk: “We extend our sincere apologies to children, parents and organizations who feel they may have been impacted in some negative way.”

Dec. 17, 2015: Inadequate and unreliable

Justice Susan Lang concludes that Motherisk’s tests were “inadequate” and “unreliable” for use in the thousands of child protection cases and handful of criminal cases in which they were submitted as evidence in Ontario between 2005 and 2015.

Jan. 15, 2016: Commission established

On Lang’s recommendation, Ontario launches an independent review to determine the role Motherisk’s flawed hair tests played in decisions to remove children from their families. Retired judge Judith Beaman is appointed to lead the $10-million Motherisk Commission. She has a two-year mandate to probe 25 years of individual child protection cases, as well as provide counselling and legal support to affected families.

March 2016: Other provinces respond

After initially saying it will only review cases at the request of affected parties, New Brunswick commits to reviewing child protection cases that relied in some part on Motherisk’s tests. Nova Scotia would not commit to establishing a formal review until 2017. British Columbia at first refuses to review affected cases, but later reverses that decision.

March 1, 2017: Koren under scrutiny

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario confirms it is investigating Dr. Gideon Koren, who retired from Sick Kids in June 2015 and is working in Israel. Sick Kids sent the CPSO findings from its internal investigation of Motherisk, which uncovered serious problems at Motherisk lab and its affiliated call centre.

May 30, 2017: Restoring public confidence

Ontario launches a review of the oversight and accountability of the province’s forensic labs to explore setting mandatory accreditation standards, as well as improving forensic training and increasing transparency.