Flawed testing played a critical role in 56 cases, an independent review found amid a scandal ripping through the Canadian child welfare system.
Counselors and courts were hard enough to convince, but Tammy Whiteman was also fighting against the certainty of science.
In 2008, the Canadian woman struggled to regain custody of her two daughters, ages 9 and 13. The Ontario Family Youth and Child Services had decided she was an unfit parent, citing problems with her mental health. The children were funneled into the foster system. Whiteman’s own past sharpened the pain of the loss.
“My mom passed away when I was 12, and I always swore when I had my kids, I would be there for everything,” she told the CBC’s “The Fifth State” last October. “When they took them, especially at that age, when girls really need their mom, it almost killed me. There was nothing I could do, and it was not my choice not to be there.”
But any path Whiteman had at reuniting with her children dead-ended. At the request of the state, she had submitted to hair-strand drug and alcohol tests. The results were positive, indicating Whiteman was a chronic drinker, bingeing 16 to 18 drinks a day.
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Whiteman, however, was sober at the time. When the bewildered mother protested the results, arguing there had to be a mistake, the courts told her she was in denial, she later explained. Not only was she a bad mother and an alcoholic in the eyes of the system, she was a liar, too.
Whiteman’s situation was not an isolated error but part of a scandal ripping through the Canadian child welfare system. The injustice was put in sharper focus this week with an independent commission report showing more than 50 custody cases like Whiteman’s were tainted by flawed drug and alcohol testing from the same Toronto lab.
The mother’s hair-strand tests were conducted by Motherisk Laboratory at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. Between 2005 and 2015, the facility conducted more than 16,000 tests on individuals for child welfare cases in Ontario.
But following a number of high-profile cases questioning the reliability of Motherisk’s results, an independent review in 2015 found the lab’s tests were “inadequate and unreliable in child protection and criminal proceedings.” That same year, the lab closed and the hospital CEO Michael Apkon issued a public apology.
“We extend our sincere apologies to children, parents and organizations who feel they may have been impacted in some negative way,” he said, the Toronto Star reported.
On Monday an independent commission released the 308-page report on how Motherisk’s lab work directly impacted families.
The commission found the lab’s testing did not meet international forensic standards and test results were “frequently misinterpreted.” Looking specifically at 1,271 cases handled by the lab between 1990 and 2015 in Ontario, the commission determined Motherisk’s flawed testing played a critical role in 56 cases.
“Behind every one of the 56 ‘cases,’ families were broken apart and relationships among children, siblings, parents, and extended families and communities were damaged or lost,” the report stated. Families impact by the scandal have been alerted; nearly 275 plaintiffs named in 11 separate lawsuits are also involved currently in lawsuits involving Motherisk.
The commission’s report, by focusing on Ontario, offers only a limited snapshot of the fallout. Motherisk conducted drug tests for 100 child welfare providers in five Canadian provinces.
The report noted low-income and indigenous families were often the most impacted by the testing – lacking the funds and access to legal help to fight back.
“The testing was imposed on people who were among the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society, with scant regard for due process of their rights to privacy and bodily integrity,” the report stated. “Most of the parents who were tested were powerless to resist. They told us that they submitted to the testing under duress, in fear of losing custody of or access to their children.”
But the commission was blunt about the irreparable damage done. Many of the children who were uprooted based on the tests are now in new living situations. Some have even been adopted. So far, children have been reunited with parents in only four instances, according to the Star.
“Even where an appeal or challenge is possible, the court may decide that it is not in the child’s best interest to alter their living or access arrangements,” the report concluded. “This means that even where the discredited Motherisk testing substantially affected the outcome of cases, the families will likely have difficulty bringing about a change in the children’s situation.”
Tammy Whiteman was one of the lucky ones.
Back in 2008, the mother and her attorney decided to test the testing. For 90 days, she wore an ankle monitor that could detect whether she was drinking. During the same period, she submitted to another hair test. The ankle monitor said she was alcohol-free. “But the hair test for the same 90 days still said I was a chronic abuser,” she told the CBC.
Armed with her own ankle monitor data refuting the Motherisk tests, Whiteman was eventually reunited with her children.
According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Whiteman later determined the false positive result that caused her so much anguish and anxiety might have been due to her hair spray. The beauty product contained 70 percent alcohol.