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Motherisk: Science Gone Bad



What do you do when the system is against you?

What should you do when you’re the only one that knows the truth?

What can you do?


This was the dilemma of dozens of people who found themselves up against both the child welfare system and a hair testing laboratory in the 2000s.

Motherisk was a respected lab inside the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto where more than 25,000 hair tests were done for more than 100 child welfare providers in five provinces over two decades.[1] A lab where results could be a deciding factor between children going home…or not.

The lab itself tested for substance use, both alcohol, and drugs, in children and caregivers to be used in child welfare cases. It was known as an organization of trustworthy professionals within a trustworthy institution.

Until it wasn’t.

As it was discovered, Motherisk’s results were, in fact, based on “faulty opinions, devised by scientists who operated without oversight or forensic training yet testified as experts in family and criminal courts.”[2] It wasn’t until 2014 when an expert witness challenged the reliability of the lab’s evidence in a trial where a Toronto mother was convicted of feeding her toddler cocaine, that Motherisk’s unreliability came to light.[3] The criticism during the trial eventually led to the overturning of the conviction and the shuttering of the lab, but not before it was used in “at least eight criminal cases and thousands of child protection cases.”[4]


Not until children were separated from their families and families separated from their children.


As a retired judge and writer of the government-commissioned report on Motherisk Susan Lang wrote, “losing your child is the capital punishment of child protection law,” and that punishment was doled out in multitudes with the influence of Motherisk’s testing results.[5]

By the time the Motherisk scandal broke in 2014, the human cost was already steep. In some cases, adoptions were complete and “virtually impossible to disrupt.”[6] In others parents were forced to make unimaginable decisions between pursuing justice and potentially clearing their name or allowing their children, who may not even remember them, to continue growing up in the only homes they knew.[7]


The choice was made all the more difficult when the pursuit of justice was not an easy climb to undertake.


While Motherisk testing was not necessarily incorrect, nor was it necessarily correct. Their sloppy analysis combined with no samples being retained for re-resting meant that exoneration was nearly impossible, if not just a dream, for those seeking justice.[8] It was a no man’s land of injustice, and those with the most to lose would be the ones to continue to take the hardest hits.


And it wasn’t just the aftermath that reeked of injustice. It was the system that upheld it for so many years. In 2011, a Judge wrote about the contesting of Motherisk’s lab results by a parent that their “explanation for the hair follicle testing and the results of those tests is, in part, to challenge the very science of that hair testing. […] Hair follicle testing occurs with regular frequency in the Province of Ontario and is relied upon by this court and other courts throughout the province. There is no evidence before this court . . . that would effectively challenge that science.”[9]


No evidence to effectively challenge the science.


What do you do when your truth is not the truth that is recognized? When there is no evidence and no hope?


As it turns out, this was a common occurrence. Motherisk’s results were “almost never challenged […] even when desperate parents were certain the results were dead wrong.”[9] Not surprising considering the disproportionate effects that Motherisk’s results had on already marginalized communities. The commission found that Indigenous families were involved in “nearly 15 percent of the 1,291 cases the commission reviewed, despite making up less than 3 percent of Ontario’s population.”[10]


Just as the child welfare system oppresses and disproportionately affects Indigenous people, so too did the bad science of Motherisk. So too did the system.


And as we discuss health, science, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, we must turn our minds to the challenging work of challenging the system. For Motherisk is an example of the corrosive nature of truth, or more correctly, of the recognition of only one truth.


The more I listen and have the chance to write through ReconciliACTION in search of “Truth before Reconciliation,” the more I’ve come to find that truth is not a singular path, nor is it a goal. Truth comes with doing the hard work of holding on to one’s beliefs so tightly that they do not fall away, but not so tightly that they cannot be let go of. The truth can be corrosive, it can be the evidence we hold up as truth with no space to challenge truth itself, but it can also be the hope. It can be freedom.


And if Motherisk has a lesson to be learned, that is what it is for me.


Until next time,


Casey & the ReconciliACTION YEG Team


[1] See parts 2 and 3 in note 3 and 6 for the complete publication. Rachel Mendleson, “Separated by a Hair” (19 Oct 2017), online: Toronto Star <http://projects.thestar.com/motherisk/>.

[2] The evidence showed that the environment that the tests took place in was inadequate and merely clinical, not forensic. See Rachel Mendleson’s works for further discussion on the process of hair testing and why the results were considered unreliable. Ibid.

[3] Rachel Mendleson, “Motherisk hair test rejected by judge — 22 years before scandal blew up” (19 Oct 2017), online: Toronto Star < http://projects.thestar.com/motherisk/part-2/>.

[4] Mendleson, supra note 1

[5] Ibid.

[6] Rachel Mendleson, “Separated by a Hair - Part 3” (19 Oct 2017), online: Toronto Star < http://projects.thestar.com/motherisk/part-3>.

[7] Ibid.

[7] Mendleson, supra note 1.

[8] Mendleson, supra note 6.

[9] See Children’s Aid Society of Algoma v. L.G., 2011 ONCJ 392 for the case details in their entirety. Lisa Mayor, “'It's a tragedy': How the flawed Motherisk hair test helped fracture families across Canada” (19 Oct 2017), online: CBC <https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/motherisk-hair-testing-families-1.4360577>.

[10] Rachel Mendleson, “Motherisk hair testing 'unfair and harmful' to the poorest and most vulnerable Ontario families” (26 Feb 2018), online: The Hamilton Spectator <https://www.thespec.com/news/ontario/2018/02/26/motherisk-hair-testing-unfair-and-harmful-to-the-poorest-and-most-vulnerable-ontario-families.html#:~:text=The%20Motherisk%20scandal%20began%20in,overturn%20her%20drug%2Drelated%20convictions>.

Other works:

https://nationalpost.com/opinion/chris-selley-motherisk-is-the-ontario-liberals-unacknowledged-and-worst-scandal


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