“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 Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s “The Fifth Estate” in 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 that Whiteman was a chronic drinker, consuming 16 to 18 drinks a day.
Whiteman, however, was sober at the time. When the bewildered mother protested the results, arguing that 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 into sharper focus this week with an independent commission report showing that 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 the laboratory at the Motherisk 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 after a number of high-profile cases questioning the reliability of Motherisk’s results, an independent review in 2015 found that the lab’s tests were “inadequate and unreliable in child protection and criminal proceedings.” That same year, the lab closed and Michael Apkon, the hospital’s chief executive, 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 affected families.
The commission found that the lab’s testing did not meet international forensic standards and that test results were “frequently misinterpreted.” Looking specifically at 1,271 cases the lab handled between 1990 and 2015 in Ontario, the commission determined that 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 affected by the scandal have been alerted; nearly 275 plaintiffs named in 11 lawsuits also are involved 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 that low-income and indigenous families were often the most affected by the testing — lacking the money 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.
In 2008, she 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 the ankle monitor data refuting the Motherisk tests, Whiteman was eventually reunited with her children.
According to the CBC, Whiteman later determined that the false-positive result that caused her so much anguish and anxiety might have been caused by her hair spray. The product contained 70 percent alcohol.
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