The Current

Motherisk investigation reveals concerns over 'unreliable' tests long before lab shut down

In the messy world of child protection services, the Motherisk Lab was supposed to be a pillar of objective reality — until a judge ruled their tests unreliable.
Dr. Gideon Koren, seen in 1999, retired from SickKids in 2015, when the hospital closed the Motherisk lab. He says Motherisk’s hair tests were 'accurate and reliable for their intended purpose.' (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star)

A joint investigation with CBC's Fifth Estate and Toronto Star

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It's a lab that is responsible for changing the lives of people like Heather.

It's not her real name but she can't be identified because she was involved in a child protection hearing. Both of her children were seized by the Children's Aid Society shortly after they were born. 

In 2009, they were made Crown wards with no access to their mother. They would be adopted off to separate families.

Hair testing done by the Motherisk Lab at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children played a significant part in that decision.

Heather admits to cocaine use in the past, but she insists that once she found out she was pregnant, the drug use stopped. However, drug tests conducted at Motherisk's lab kept coming back positive.

"I was now tagged. I'm a cocaine addict. I'm on drugs. I'm a big druggie and a liar. A liar and a drug addict. I now had a tag that I couldn't drop. And you can't shake that."

Heather insisted there must be problems with the tests, but she couldn't prove it.

A joint CBC/Toronto Star investigation has uncovered that she and other parents like her weren't the only ones who raised concerns long before the lab was closed for good.

For more than two decades, the Hospital for Sick Children's Motherisk laboratory conducted at least 35,000 tests on strands of hair. They were testing for drug and alcohol use and the results were used in child protection and criminal courts across the country.

Justice Susan Lang, a retired Ontario judge, conducted an independent review of the Motherisk lab. She delivered her report in December 2015. (Bernard Weil/Toronto Star)

In 2014, retired Justice Susan Lang was asked by the Ontario government to do an independent review of Motherisk.

She found a raft of problems with how it was conducting its hair testing.

"They were totally inadequate and unreliable. They were used for purposes that they were never, they were never designed to be used. And there is no question that parents lost children and children lost their parents."

Challenging Motherisks' findings in Colorado trial

The lab was closed in 2015 but more than two decades earlier, similar concerns were raised at a trial in Colorado. 

The trial was for Allen Thomas Jr., charged with the murder and sexual assault of his ex-girlfriend's grandmother. He was facing the death penalty.

His defence argued Thomas was too high on cocaine at the time to have the mental capacity to intentionally commit the crime — a requirement for the death penalty in Colorado.

To establish Thomas' drug use, the defence hired Motherisk to do a drug test on the accused's hair. Motherisk's results found that Thomas used 55 grams of cocaine in the month the crime occurred.

Special prosecutor Eva Wilson challenged Motherisk’s findings in the trial of Allen Thomas Jr., charged with murder and sexual assault. He was facing the death penalty. (Jack Dempsey/Toronto Star)

Eva Wilson, the special prosecutor on the case, challenged Motherisk's finding.

"My initial reaction was it was concocted," she said.

"Not to say that it was impossible for hair to show that type of evidence, but ...  to show a time frame and to show the amount that had been used? Right away that seemed like junk science."

In 1993, Motherisk's Julia Klein, who managed the lab at the time, was among three expert witnesses who testified at a two-day admissibility hearing.

I know you can't reverse adoptions. It's not what we're looking for. They have other parents now.- Heather

In the end, the judge denied the defence's motion to admit Motherisk's drug test results at trial, finding the evidence was not within the generally accepted consensus of the scientific community.

Preview Motherisk : Tainted Tests & Broken Families

5 years ago
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The Fifth Estate tracked down parents who share stories for the first time on Motherisk : Tainted Tests & Broken Families. Mark Kelley reports.

"It's like the scientific process equated to the shooting of an arrow to find a particular target was one where Ms. Klein shot the arrow in the air, let it land, and painted the target around the arrow," Judge Marshall said in his ruling.

Another expert witness had testified that Motherisk's use of a single preliminary screening test on Thomas' hair undermined the results' reliability.

Motherisk continued the practice for another 17 years — not introducing full-scale secondary confirmation testing until 2010.

Families still search for answers

An independent commission in Ontario has so far found 50 cases in which Motherisk's drug tests were a "significant factor" in a judge's decision to permanently remove a child from his or her parents' care.

Heather is one of the hundreds of plaintiffs involved in at least 11 lawsuits, including a proposed class action against Motherisk and its former employees. (Toronto Star)

Heather's case was one of them. But she says, "they've done nothing … Absolutely nothing."

In six cases, the commission has been able to give parents some level of access to or information about children that had been seized. But not in Heather's case, because the adoptive parents haven't agreed to be a part of the process.

Adoption legislation across Canada makes it virtually impossible to overturn an adoption once it is finalized. But Heather says she doesn't want her daughters back — she knows it's too late for that. She just wants to know how they're doing.

"I know you can't reverse adoptions. It's not what we're looking for. They have other parents now. I get that, but at the very least, just let us know that they're okay."

Heather is one of the hundreds of plaintiffs involved in at least 11 lawsuits, including a proposed class action against Motherisk and its former employees.

The founder of Motherisk, Dr. Gideon Koren, the other former employees and Hospital for Sick Children have denied all of the allegations against them.

In his statement of defence in the proposed class action, Dr. Koren says Motherisk's hair tests were "accurate and reliable for their intended purpose."

Koren and Julia Klein, the former lab manager, refused requests for interviews because of the ongoing litigation. The Hospital for Sick Children also wouldn't comment, but in a statement says it "deeply regrets" what it calls unacceptable practices in the lab.

Internal reviews into Motherisk's tests are ongoing in B.C., Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

Listen to the full segment above.

This segment was produced by The Current's John Chipman and documentary editor Elizabeth Hoath as part of a joint-investigation with CBC's Fifth estate and the Toronto Star.