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Sick Kids Motherisk Program


Since 1991, Canada has been part of the treaty and two protocols under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. By ratifying the treaty and the protocols, the state expressed its readiness to uphold the highest standards in protecting children from abuse. Within the framework of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, all children have the right to life, care, well-being, and appropriate health assistance.

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The Convention obliges the states to allow parents and legal guardians to exercise their responsibilities. However, as history shows, the latter is not always possible. To tackle the problem of child maltreatment in families whose members suffer from substance addictions, the Canadian government and affiliated institutions have launched several programs with varying success rates. One of the most extensive and, controversial programs in the legal history of Canada was the Motherisk Program developed by the Hospital of Sick Kids. This essay will provide a brief overview of the Motherisk Program and discuss the most resonant cases of families suffering from faulty laboratory results. The issue of unreliable substance testing will also be examined from an ethical perspective.

Sick Kids and Motherisk Program: Overview

The Hospital of Sick Kids (now branded as SickKids) is a large pediatric hospital located in Ontario, Toronto, Canada. The hospital is affiliated with the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine and as of now, is the world’s second-largest research hospital. The hospital has a long history that dates back to 1875 when a group of women rented a small house for non-discriminatory admission and treatment of all sick children in the area.

Ever since its foundation, hospital staff has based their medical practice upon the principles of respect, compassion, and understanding, seeking to integrate teaching, research, and care. The hospital is dedicated to treating children entirely, and undoubtedly, the likelihood of positive health outcomes in a child is linked directly to his or her mother’s health. Hence, it was only logical of the Hospital of Sick Kids to launch a program aiming at enhancing maternal health.

Motherisk was established in 1985 as an evidence-based information provider on the risks and implications of maternal exposure during pregnancy and lactation. As of now, Motherisk has two helplines contacting which a person can get information about risks and safety. The first helpline is dedicated to supplying citizens with information on the impact of medication, radiation, diseases, natural products, and some environmental factors in the prenatal and postnatal periods. The other helpline, on the other hand, provides data on pregnancy, lactation, and alcohol and drug intake. Despite the Hospital’s best intentions, in the 2010s the Motherisk program generated a significant deal of controversy and attracted a lot of mass media attention.

Motherisk Program: Controversies

In the 2010s, despite the lack of required credentials, Motherisk managed to become a vital part of the Canadian justice system. The Motherisk Program’s laboratory was frequently used in child protection cases, and the results had a direct impact on the sentencing and execution of justice. One of the most notorious mishappenings was the 2008 case of Tammy Whiteman, a loving mother to two daughters.

As the woman reported, she was a responsible parent, committed to acting in her children’s best interests. Whiteman never expected that her daughters – 9 and 13 years old at the time- would be seized from her over the false accusation of chronic alcoholism. Four hair tests carried out at Motherisk showed that the woman’s alcohol intake was anywhere from 16 to 18 drinks per day, hence, the woman was found to be not fit for fulfilling the parental role (Mayor). In 2009, Tamara Broomfield was convicted of giving her son a near-lethal dose of heroin and sentenced to seven years in prison (Bala and Thomson 1). After more than four years, Broomfield’s case was revised, and the sentencing overturned, as Motherisk’s results proved to be wrong.

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Whiteman’s and Broomfield’s tragedies were not standalone cases: the false laboratory results affected hundreds of vulnerable families across Canada. By 2018, there have been identified 56 cases when families have torn apart due to faulty testing (Mendleson, “Motherisk Commission Calls for Sweeping Changes”). As of 2018, children returned to their families only in four cases. The experts that investigated the cases stated that alcohol and drug testing targeted the poorest and most vulnerable families who were not capable of resisting the procedures. Moreover, the procedures were conducted with zero regard to their bodily integrity and confidentiality.

In 2015, the Hospital of Sick Kids finally took measures to solve the pressing issue. After numerous reports revealing the invalidity of Motherisk laboratory procedures were published, hair testing was suspended (Mendleson, “Sick Kids Suspends Motherisk’s Hair Drug Testing”). However, years of Motherisk’s engagement in the justice system had a lasting effect and adverse consequences that have yet to be appropriately addressed. Many displaced children were put up for adoption, and amidst the unraveling controversy and outrage, hundreds of adoption cases were put on hold (Ballingall). The sudden disruption appeared to be traumatic for each party involved.

Adverse Consequences: Implications for Families

The issue of the faulty drug and alcohol testing program should be examined not only from the legal standpoint but also from the ethical perspective. One may contend that the Canadian government and justice system failed to protect children’s rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (“Rights of Children”). Due to unjustified, prolonged implementation of Motherisk drug and alcohol testing, numerous families were broken and children apprehended.

According to the Convention, children are entitled to staying in their families and should be spared excessive interference. Instead, because of the Motherisk Program, minors were denied safety and familiarity of their homes. It is abundantly easy to imagine how devastating such an experience must have been. Moreover, Canada was not consistent with its adoption of restorative justice. The measures that were undertaken against accused parents were merely punitive and did not imply the possibility of reformation.


Undoubtedly, not a single child should live in an environment where his or her health and well-being might be jeopardized – for instance, in a family whose members suffer from severe substance abuse. Despite the need to execute justice, the authorities should be extremely cautious in evaluating how to fit the parents are for their role in each given family. An attempt to standardize evaluation practices through Motherisk laboratory tests resulted in a national tragedy. The laboratory failed to uphold its integrity and was providing the authorities with false results for years on end. Affected families are still trying to reunite; adoption cases put on hold is another issue to be addressed.

Works Cited

Bala, Nicholas and Jane Thomson. “Motherisk and Charter Orders for Experts for Parents in Child Welfare Cases.” Canadian Family Law Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 199, 2016, pp. 1-7.

Ballingal, Alex. “Hundreds of Adoption Cases on Hold as Motherisk Probe Continues.The Star. 2016. Web.

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Rights of Children.Government of Canada. 2017. Web.

Mayor, Lisa. “’It’s a Tragedy’: How the Flawed Motherisk Hair Test Helped Fracture Families across Canada.CBC. 2017. Web.

Mendleson, Rachel. “Motherisk Commission Calls for Sweeping Changes to Child Protection System.The Star. 2018. Web.

Mendleson, Rachel. “Sick Kids Suspends Motherisk’s Hair Drug Testing.The Star. 2015. Web.

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