Hair Strand Drug Testing at the Motherisk Drug Testing Laboratory (“MDTL”)

The Motherisk Drug Testing Laboratory (“MDTL”) was a facility located at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Ontario. From the late 1990s to 2015, the “MDTL” conducted hair strand testing for drugs and alcohol, primarily at the request of Children’s Aid Societies in Ontario. Between 2005 and April 2015 – the period of time examined in the Lang Report – it is estimated that the “MDTL” tested 24,000 hair samples from 16,000 individuals, at the request of Ontario child protection agencies.

Ontario child protection agencies relied on these tests in the course of their work. The testing was primarily used to confirm suspicions of drug or alcohol use by a parent or caregiver, and the results frequently submitted as evidence before courts.

Between 2005 and 2015, the “MDTL” held itself out as a leader in the field of hair testing. It marketed its services widely to child protection agencies in Ontario. Its employees appeared as expert witnesses in child protection trials.

In addition to child protection cases, test results from the “MDTL” were also used as evidence in a small number of criminal cases. One of those cases was R. v. Broomfield. R. v. Broomfield established that there was a genuine controversy about the testing methods used by the “MDTL”

The questions raised by R. v. Broomfield eventually led to an Independent Review conducted by the Honourable Susan Lang, and the release of the Lang Report in December 2015. Justice Lang ultimately found that the work done by the “MDTL” was unreliable.

R. V. Broomfield

On August 1, 2005, Tamara Broomfield rushed her two-and-a-half year old child to the local hospital. He was suffering from seizures, and was transferred to the Hospital for Sick Children (“SickKids”). While at SickKids, medical investigation found that he had several broken ribs in various stages of healing, a broken wrist, and that there was a potentially lethal dose of cocaine in his bodily fluid. The doctors treating the child then requested that his hair be tested by the Motherisk Drug Testing Laboratory (“MDTL”), as did the child protection agency involved with the family.

According to the “MDTL”, the results from the sample suggested that the child ingested substantial amounts of cocaine in the 14 months before his hospitalization. Ms. Broomfield took the position that the cocaine identified in her child’s bodily fluids may have resulted from one accidental exposure.

At the trial in 2009, staff from the “MDTL” testified on behalf of the Crown. Their evidence – that the child had been consuming cocaine for a period of 14 months – was accepted by the trial judge. Ms. Broomfield was convicted of administering a noxious substance to her child over a period of 14 months. She was also convicted of assault causing bodily harm, resulting in multiple rib fractures; failing to provide necessaries of life, by failing to seek medical assistance for his fractured arm, and aggravated assault by giving her infant son a potentially lethal dose of cocaine.

The case went all the way up to the Ontario Court of Appeal. Ultimately, Ms. Broomfield only contested the convictions based on her child’s ingestion of cocaine. She provided fresh evidence from another hair-testing expert – Dr. Craig Chatterton, the deputy chief toxicologist in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Alberta. Dr. Chatterton criticized the methods used by the “MDTL” to test hair samples. Based on the information provided by Dr. Chatterton, the Court of Appeal found that there was a genuine controversy about the science and methodology used by the Motherisk Laboratory. The Court quashed the two cocaine related convictions.

Read the full-text of R. v. Broomfield.