'It's a tragedy': How the flawed Motherisk hair test helped fracture families across Canada

Tammy Whiteman’s world revolved around her two daughters.

But in 2008, Family Youth and Child Services of Muskoka took her nine- and 13-year-old daughters from her because of serious concerns about her mental health and child rearing.

The Ontario woman’s fight to get her daughters back was initially unsuccessful in part because of what has now been determined to be faulty hair-strand testing done by the Motherisk Drug Testing Lab at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

The results of the Motherisk hair tests appeared to show that Whiteman was a chronic alcohol abuser.

“All four [hair tests] were between two times to four times the top levels of a daily chronic abuser of alcohol, which they told me was anywhere from 16 to 18 drinks a day,” she said.  

Tammy Whiteman

Tammy Whiteman’s hair test results from the Motherisk lab showed she was a chronic alcohol abuser, when in reality the hair spray she was using at the time contained 70 per cent alcohol. (Tannis Toohey/Toronto Star)

What the Motherisk lab determined to be chronic and frequent alcohol abuse, Whiteman says was alcohol in the hairspray she was using at the time.

In a joint investigation with CBC Radio’s The Current and the Toronto Star, The Fifth Estate has talked with half a dozen families across Canada whose families were fractured in part due to faulty hair tests done by the Motherisk lab.

For more than two decades, Motherisk performed flawed drug and alcohol testing on thousands of vulnerable families across Canada, influencing decisions in child protection cases that separated parents from their children and sometimes children from their siblings.

Child welfare agencies in five provinces across Canada had paid for Motherisk’s hair-strand tests, believing they were scientific proof of substance abuse. The tests were often used in custody and child protection cases in part to decide whether a parent was fit to care for a child.

Faulty opinions

Motherisk scientists were operating without any forensic training or oversight. Its test results, it has now been discovered, were faulty opinions.

The science had seemed straightforward. Simple strands of hair are a warehouse of information, storing biomarkers that can reveal proof of drug and alcohol use. They hold that information longer than blood or urine.

By 2015, the lab had conducted more than 35,000 hair tests across Canada, including in Whiteman’s case.

Sick Kids hospital sign

Questions about the science of hair testing began after serious shortcomings were found at the Motherisk lab at the Hospital for Sick Children. (CBC)

She says she wasn’t drinking any alcohol at that point in her life, but her position went unheard. She was told she was in denial and sent for counselling.

Wanting to refute the results, Whiteman and her lawyer came up with a way to prove Motherisk wrong.

She wore an ankle bracelet — like a house arrest monitor — for 90 days. It included technology that could detect whether she was drinking or not.

“We had a hair test done for the same 90 days I had the monitor on and it came back there was absolutely no alcohol and no tampering, but the hair test for the same 90 days still said I was a chronic abuser.”

At that time, Whiteman was using a lot of hairspray. She says she sent the hairspray to be tested and it was found to contain 70 per cent alcohol. Motherisk ultimately agreed some hairspray could produce a positive test result.

In a letter to Whiteman’s lawyer, lab manager Joey Gareri wrote that the positive finding might be the result of “ethanol-containing hair care products.”

‘I was shocked’

The joint investigationfound one mother in British Columbia who didn’t know anything about the scandal surrounding the lab until she was contacted for this story.

“I was shocked. I cried for the first couple seconds and then thought, ‘Why am I crying?’ ” she said. “This is a good thing, this is actually proving to people that I wasn’t wrong, that I wasn’t incorrect and … and I wasn’t lying.”

The woman said that even though this comes more than a decade late, it still “gives her some kind of happiness.”

She believes the hair used for the test was not hers. She says her hair at that time was no more than 13 centimetes long, but the hair sent for testing was not only closer to 30 centimetres long but also a different colour than hers entirely.

The test results revealed high levels of crystal meth. Her children were placed in permanent care in 2006.

By 2009, more than 10,000 hair tests had been done in the Motherisk lab for parents in Ontario and B.C. alone.

In May 2015, British Columbia imposed a moratorium on hair testing for child protection cases.

The provincial government told The Fifth Estate, The Current and the Toronto Star it is doing a review of child protection cases where Motherisk tests were used as evidence.

Too late 

On the other side of the country, an estimated 750 to 900 individuals in Nova Scotia were tested using Motherisk labs between 2000 and 2015.

In April 2016, the province stopped relying on hair testing — but that decision was too late for a Halifax couple named Fred and Julie, whose names have been changed for legal reasons.

At that time, the couple were in the final stages of a legal battle to regain custody of their eldest son.

The couple submitted more than a dozen hair samples under court order to Motherisk for testing.

Fred said he had quit using all recreational drugs, but the couple was still on the radar of Nova Scotia Department of Community Services.

Motherisk’s lab manager, Joey Gareri, testified in their child protection case. He said Fred’s tests came back positive for frequent and intensive use of cocaine. 

Fred and Julie

Fred and Julie, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, had their son taken away from them because of faulty Motherisk hair testing. (Vaughan Merchant/Canadian Press)

Fred and Julie were shocked when they heard his testimony.

“He talked in riddles kind of,” Fred said. “Nobody understood the science he was speaking, so he sounded like he really knew what he was talking about.”

The Superior Court judge found Gareri credible, reliable and knowledgeable. Fred and Julie not only lost custody of their son, but they also weren’t allowed access to him.

They were terrified their daughter, who at this point wasn’t living with her parents, would be next. Before the final hearing in her case, Sick Kids shut down the Motherisk drug testing lab.

Fred paid for a hair test at an accredited forensics lab in the U.S. It came back clean. When Fred and Julie appeared before the same judge a month later, the judge granted Fred custody of their daughter.

Fred filed an application to end the permanent wardship order for his son, but it was too late — the boy’s adoption was finalized in June 2015.

The Nova Scotia Department of Community Services declined to comment on the case.

“It’s torn me apart  … because that’s my son and that’s my daughter,” Fred said. “They’re not together when they should be together. Every day, I think about that.”

Her daughter, now seven years old, collects toys for her brother, Julie said, and mentions him in her nightly prayers.

“She’ll ask God to hurry up and let [him] come back home.”

Ontario investigation

Meanwhile, back in Ontario in November 2014, the province had appointed retired Court of Appeal justice Susan Lang to investigate the lab’s procedures and protocols after a series of investigations by the Toronto Star revealed problems with the tests. Lang’s inquiry was completed in December 2015.

Justice Susan Lang

The Ontario government appointed retired justice Susan Lang to investigate Motherisk’s hair test lab’s procedures and protocols. (Bernard Weil/Toronto Star)

In her first interview about her investigation, Lang described what she calls her eureka moment

“I was astonished when I finally realized that there was nothing reliable about this, there was nothing in this 2005 to 2010 period that was redeeming,” she said.

“It was not going to be a nuanced report, it was going to say these results are inadequate and unreliable and no forensic lab in the world conducted tests and interpreted these tests in that manner, nowhere, there was nothing redeeming to be said.”

What was also astonishing, Lang said, was that virtually no one ever challenged Motherisk’s tests in court, even when desperate parents were certain the results were dead wrong. The experts were always right.

Lang said the faulty Motherisk testing is a “tragedy” for everyone involved.

“I considered it a tragedy that it’s not good for our justice system that we’re relying on forensic evidence that is unreliable and inadequate, it’s a tragedy for the families, it’s a tragedy for the parents who may have lost temporarily or otherwise contact with their child, it’s really a tragedy for the children.”

Reunited with daughters

In the end, Whiteman got her daughters back, but she says they weren’t the same.

Tammy’s daughter Krista is now 19. She remembers moving nine times after she was taken from her mother. Riddled with anxiety, she wouldn’t leave her mom’s house for two months.

“I felt safer in my four walls in my house than I do outside,” she said. “At least I know I can lock my door and I have a choice of who comes in.

“I was afraid they were going to come take me away for good.”

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