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Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children is pictured on September the 14th, 2008.

Simon Hayter/The Globe and Mail

A B.C. government review of hundreds of hair-strand tests used in child-protection cases over a 10-year period found the tests were not a key factor in decisions to keep children in care.

But such tests will no longer be allowed, because their findings "do not appear to support the case planning and decision making processes," the review said.

This is on top of findings from an Ontario review that found significant problems related to hair tests conducted at Motherisk Drug Testing Laboratory at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

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Hair-strand tests have been used to find traces of drugs or alcohol in parents or children involved in custody cases.

In May, 2015, B.C. put a moratorium on the tests. A month earlier, Ontario suspended the use of hair-strand testing in child-protection cases over concerns they were unreliable.

The December, 2017, review makes the ban in B.C. permanent, citing the potential risks of relying on such tests in child-custody cases.

"Although there are other laboratories available to B.C. that could provide this test, the methodologies they use are unknown and there are major risks involved in utilizing hair strand tests to make child welfare decisions," said the review, posted as a "special report" by the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

The review also calls for training for child-protection workers who are working with families in which substance abuse is an issue, and a review of provincial guidelines for assessing problematic substance abuse by parents in such cases.

The B.C. review is among the cross-country ripple effects resulting from the collapse of Motherisk in Ontario. The once highly regarded laboratory came under scrutiny in 2014, after the Court of Appeal for Ontario quashed two cocaine-related convictions against a mother who had been found guilty of giving cocaine to her 2 1/2-year-old son over a 14-month period.

The mother had been convicted, in part, based on findings of Motherisk hair tests performed on her child.

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Based on information provided by another hair-testing expert, the Court of Appeal found there was a "genuine controversy" among experts about testing methods used at the mother's trial.

In November, 2014, the Ontario government launched an independent review of Motherisk. The lab suspended all non-research operations in March, 2015. In her final report, released in December, 2015, retired Ontario court of appeal judge Susan Lang found the hair-strand drug and alcohol testing used by the Motherisk lab between 2005 and 2015 was "inadequate and unreliable" for use in child protection and criminal proceedings and that the laboratory did not meet internationally recognized forensic standards.

Ontario then set up the Motherisk Commission in 2016 to examine individual cases affected by hair testing.

The controversy over the tests raised concerns in other provinces, including B.C., in which Motherisk hair strand tests had been used.

Although the B.C. children's ministry had not formally tracked usage of hair strand tests, "it was known that this type of testing by social workers was not uncommon," the B.C. review states.

Based on information provided by Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, the ministry review found Motherisk tests had been used in 10 of the province's 13 regions between 2005 and 2015.

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The B.C. review began with a file of 5,727 tests for 5,005 individuals – some people's hair was tested more than once during the time period – but was winnowed down in several steps to in-depth reviews of 71 files.

Of the 71 children, 56 per cent were Aboriginal, the review states.

The first phase, now complete, involved a file review of cases in which hair strand tests were used in case planning, decision making and court decisions.

A second phase – planned to get under way after Ontario's Motherisk Commission releases its final report this year – will involve examining court records and interviewing social workers on specific cases.

Based on the methodology used in the review, "individual cases could not be identified where hair strand tests results were a clear key determinant in the decision to keep the child in care," the review says.

"Firm conclusions cannot, however, be made from a review of file records alone, as the file records cannot review the impact the positive hair strand tests had on the social worker's perspective of the parent's honesty or perceived willingness to address issues the social worker believed were impacting parenting," it adds.

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The Ontario Motherisk Commission's two-year mandate was set to expire on Jan. 15 but has been extended until Feb. 28.

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