There’s too much at stake not to double-check.
That’s the consensus of a number of legal and child welfare experts, who are concerned that hair-strand testing for drugs and alcohol conducted by the Hospital for Sick Children’s Motherisk lab could be unreliable. The tests are vitally important: they are used as evidence in both criminal and child custody cases.
A series of stories by Toronto Star reporters Rachel Mendleson, Tim Alamenciak, and Laurie Monsebraaten found concerns about the drug/alcohol tests at Motherisk have been building since October, when the Ontario Court of Appeal tossed out convictions in which a mother, Tamara Broomfield, was found guilty of giving her toddler a near-lethal dose of cocaine.
The convictions were quashed based on new evidence questioning a particular test used by Motherisk as evidence against her. That test was described by Craig Chatterton, deputy chief toxicologist in the office of the chief medical examiner in Edmonton, as a “preliminary” test that should have been confirmed against “the gold-standard” test.
Chatterton also claims that Motherisk cocaine test results from June to August, 2010 — using the test used in the Broomfield case — included “four separate examples of false positive results.”
The solution is simple. Sick Kids could address concerns by retesting a random, large sampling of hair strand results against the so-called “gold standard test.”
But so far the hospital has refused. It says Motherisk no longer tests hair samples for cocaine using the technique in question and asserts, despite Chatterton’s claim, that the old test “has produced no false-positive results.”
There’s more to be concerned about.
While Motherisk no longer uses the same test for drugs and alcohol, Sick Kids won’t say which test it now uses, won’t say why or when the old technique was abandoned, and won’t say how many times the old test was relied on in criminal and child custody proceedings. That lack of transparency does not instill trust.
Nor does lack of action by the provincial government. So far Ontario’s Ministry of Health has not triggered an investigation into the testing, the Ministry of the Attorney General has not said it will review past cases, and the Ministry of Children has not used its weight to encourage the hospital to retest the samples.
Much is at stake. It’s not as if there have never been cases in which expert testimony led to false convictions.
Sick Kids’ own reputation took a beating after revelations that Charles Smith, the former head pediatric forensic pathologist at the Hospital for Sick Children, made errors in hundreds of autopsies before 2001 that resulted in false convictions of several people accused of killing small children.
Among those raising concerns about Motherisk is Toronto criminal defence lawyer Daniel Brodsky, who sits on the board of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted. Brodsky argues that Sick Kids and Motherisk have “an obligation to restore public confidence.”
He is right.
Experts are not infallible, as the Charles Smith case demonstrated. Nor are tests. Sick Kids needs, first, to be more transparent about what test it is currently using — and why and when it stopped using the old test. Then it needs to begin a program of retesting of hair samples with the “gold standard” to restore confidence in the Motherisk lab and ensure there were no miscarriages of justice based on its work.
Only then will confidence be restored in Motherisk.