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

October 20, 2017

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.

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.

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