The Motherisk Commission has made significant progress since it was established in January 2016. We have identified and reviewed individual child protection cases; undertaken outreach to groups and communities that may have been affected, including children and youth, racialized communities and Indigenous communities; and offered information and counselling to individuals and families affected by flawed hair drug and alcohol testing done by the Motherisk Drug Testing Laboratory.
What we have learned so far
Through our work so far, we have learned that the use of unreliable hair testing for legal purposes has resulted in deeply-felt harms by the children and parents who were directly affected, and has had harmful impacts on wider families and communities. While every situation is different, we have heard from people who feel that pursuing legal remedies is not adequate to express or to address the harms they have experienced, or are continuing to experience.
In our discussions with child protection, legal and community partners, we have recognized that many others who are committed to the safety and wellbeing of children have been affected through their involvement in cases that used hair testing from the laboratory. The discovery that flawed evidence was used for over 20 years has also undermined the public’s confidence in the child protection and legal systems.
Our legal review of hundreds of individual child protection cases from across Ontario has given us a unique vantage point to see some of the broader systemic and institutional issues which may have contributed to the reliance on testing done by the laboratory. Indigenous peoples and African-Canadians are overrepresented in the child protection system and are therefore, more likely to have been affected by the Motherisk testing.
Reviewing individual cases is a critical part of the Commission’s work and will continue until the end of our mandate. The restorative process described below will help us work with others to address the needs and questions that we are identifying through the reviews.
Restoring relationships and confidence
Building on what we have learned so far, we are undertaking a process to examine and further understand the systemic and institutional issues that led to this problem and identify strategies to overcome them collectively. This process will help us fulfil our mandate to offer support and assistance to people affected by the flawed hair testing and to engage with parties and stakeholders who have an interest in our work.
The purpose of the process is to examine the past, not to lay blame, but to build understanding and lay the foundation for a better future. We hope that it will help strengthen relationships among people working in child protection and begin to restore confidence in the system.
What we are doing
We are providing meaningful opportunities for people who have been affected by flawed hair testing to share their experiences and tell their stories in a safe way. Their knowledge will help us understand better what happened and contribute to making a difference in the future.
We are facilitating dialogue among individuals and organizations that we have identified during the course of our work. They bring diverse experiences and view points and include people and communities who were affected by the testing, and child protection, legal, government and community partners.
We are holding small meetings with specific sectors or communities. These include meetings with youth and youth advocates, Indigenous people and racialized people. What we learn from these meetings will help us develop the agendas for larger meetings. The larger meetings will bring people together from different sectors to share their perspectives, develop mutual understanding and inform how we move forward. Participants from the smaller meetings will also be invited to participate in these meetings.
We have organized the larger meetings around six key themes that we think are important to understanding the Motherisk testing issue:
- Role of scientific evidence in child protection cases;
- Legislative, procedural and justice system issues;
- Strengthening child protection legal practice;
- Substance use and parenting;
- Strengthening social work practice;
- Systemic issues affecting children’s aid societies.
We are also interested in hearing about any other issues related to the Motherisk testing that are important to people.
Developing better understanding
Through the participation of many voices, we hope to develop a better understanding of:
- What happened and to whom?
- Why it happened?
- Why it should matter to everyone concerned about the wellbeing of children and families?
- What changes are needed to prevent it from happening again?
What we learn through this restorative process will form part of the Commission’s final report to government.
On September 12 and 13, 2017, the Commission held a Symposium in downtown Toronto. About 100 people participated, representing young people, parents who were affected by the Motherisk hair testing, child welfare workers, lawyers, academics, scientists, advocates and community workers.
Together, we explored questions that are vital to protecting children, and empowering families and communities. These included ensuring that scientific evidence used in child protection is reliable; and improving access to support, legal information and substance use treatment options.
The Symposium was the last phase in the Commission’s restorative process begun in early spring. We embarked on this process to engage people in dialogue about the systemic issues that may have contributed to the reliance on Motherisk hair testing, and to identify strategies to prevent something similar from ever happening again.
What we have learned through the Symposium and other meetings, and from our review of over 900 child protection cases, will help inform our final report and recommendations to government.