In the US, we have a problem with forensics in crime labs. In Canada, they have a problem in hospitals:A

Even though child services found no proof that she was a negligent parent, that didn’t count for much against the overwhelmingly positive results from a hair test. The lab results said she was abusing alcohol on a regular basis and in enormous quantities.

The test results had all the trappings of credible forensic science, and was presented by a technician from the Motherisk Drug Testing Laboratory at Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital, Canada’s foremost children’s hospital.

“I told them they were wrong, but they didn’t believe me. Nobody would listen,” Marchand recalls.

Motherisk hair test results indicated that Marchand had been downing 48 drinks a day, for 90 days. “If you do the math, I would have died drinking that much” Marchand says. “There’s no way I could function.”

The court disagreed, and determined Marchand was unfit to have custody of her daughter.

It’s… not an uplifting story, to say the least. And it almost leaves one puzzled as to how this happened.

The first thing that jumps out at me is the name of the lab, Motherisk, which is a bit insulting right out of the gate. It almost lends one to the belief that they veer towards the paranoid. Mothers as risks to their children. That’s the sort of thing we usually reserve for step-fathers (or sometimes just fathers). I imagine that there is a mentality in the US crime labs where “If they’re wanting us to check this, the person we are checking is probably guilty. So operating from that assumption, those are the conclusions where they land. At least, whatever else we might think, we’d like to at least think that they’re not intentionally or uninterestedly sending innocent people to jail*.

Likewise, at least a part of me would like to find a benign motive in there somewhere. But given the name, “deeply paranoid” is about the most charitable explanation I can come up with. And, of course, it’s not actually a very charitable explanation.

As a private lab (unlike the crime labs), you worry further about the money aspect. If they’re the go-to place for a positive result, that might be very lucrative. More lucrative than the alternative, maybe. That’s “I don’t know how you sleep and night and you are going to Hell you terrible terrible person” territory. That this involves children at such a well-renown hospital makes it even more disconcerting. It also makes me not want to take my kids there if I can avoid it, if their operational philosophy is such that Motherisk’s results seemed legitimate.

It’s just a terrible story all around, from start to finish.

* – Though, in some cases, it does appear that is what happened.

Category: Newsroom

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7 Responses to Labrisk

  1. Oscar Gordon says:

    Stories like this are hard for me, not just because of the horrific injustice, but because stories like this do a wonderful job of eroding public confidence in science (and confidence in science is very important to me).

    However, don’t take that to mean I wish such stories would not be told, because they absolutely should so as to expose the risks of accepting scientific results uncritically (by people and courts). My gripe is not with the reporter, but with a lab, and all the people in it, who would so willingly discard any semblance of credibility for either a paycheck or a misguided sense of justice.

    • aaron david says:

      Its not that stories like this shouldn’t be told, its that there shouldn’t be stories like this.

      • Oscar Gordon says:

        There will always be stories like this, but I’d rather they involve con men and charlatans and government officials who mischaracterize the results of good science for personal gain.

        When men & women of science decide to crap all over the institution for gain, or misplaced ideology, that is when it truly suffers.

        • RTod says:

          Except that I believe this story actually does involve con men, of a sort.

          Quoting from the link I left below on the McLean’s piece:

          That Koren was given free rein reflected the power he wielded within SickKids. For decades, he was the avuncular, public face of Motherisk, as well as a prolific researcher, a mentor to many and a clinical-trial rainmaker. The recipient of countless international honours, including the Top Achievements in Health Research Award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in 2011, Koren held singular influence within pharmacological pediatrics. Even disciplinary action taken against him in 2003 by the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the University of Toronto and the hospital didn’t affect his Motherisk leadership. That action was in response to a public scandal that arose when SickKids’ hematologist Nancy Olivieri went public in the late 1990s with what she believed to be serious side effects in an Apotex-produced drug to treat a childhood blood disorder that she was researching with Koren. Later, Koren was found to have sent out anonymous letters to discredit Olivieri, which he denied doing until presented with DNA evidence. He was found guilty of other offences: putting his name on reports drafted and co-authored by Apotex-funded researchers who used Olivieri’s data but didn’t mention risks she’d identified; giving incorrect and false testimony against Olivieri; and failing to disclose a $250,000 grant from Apotex. In recent years, Koren and the hospital have come under media scrutiny for Motherisk’s support of the use of SSRI antidepressants during pregnancy, Koren’s research involving a popular morning-sickness drug and failing to disclose his financial relationship with Quebec-based drug manufacturer Duchesnay Inc.

          SickKids conducted an internal review, which it made public in October. That investigation revealed that the MDTL submitted tests from other labs to the Society of Hair Testing; it noted that, after 2010, the lab switched to the alleged “gold-standard” protocols to test most drugs, but still used less-definitive tests for some, including cannabinoids, until the lab was shut down in April. Until that time, the enterprise was an income generator; Lang reports that MDTL’s financial forecast showed income for 2004-05 of $624,875: “Based on the increasing number of tests, the laboratory’s income would likely have increased also,” she writes. This week, Nebres told Maclean’s that the tests, ranging from $50 to $150, brought in an average revenue of $1.3 million annually.

        • Oscar Gordon says:

          Ego, the enemy of many great minds.

  2. RTod says:

    The issue may have been less on of paranoia, and more one of greed.

    The article from McLean’s on Koren, the man who ran MotheRisk, is a good compliment to the piece you link to, Will, which does a better job than the one at McLean’s highlighting the real human costs:

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