Photo: Colleen Nicholson

Rachel Mendleson hadn’t prepared a speech.

She wasn’t expecting to win an award from the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) for her investigative work into the Motherisk Drug Testing Lab at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). But on May 5, 2018, at the Hyatt Regency Toronto, she received an award for outstanding investigative reporting in the Open Media category. Twenty other reporters and editors who had worked on the joint investigation by the Toronto Star and CBC were named, but hers was first on the list. She was the one who had broken the story and then followed it doggedly for four years. The CAJ win was an affirmation—as Mendleson says, a welcome contrast to “having institutions like SickKids and the government be like, ‘Nobody cares about this. Stop talking about this.’”

The honour came six years after Mendleson had joined the Star. In 2000, she’d left Windsor to study history and English at McGill University. Then, in 2005, she enrolled in the one-year Bachelor of Journalism program at the University of King’s College. After graduating, she spent two years working in Halifax, first at The Daily News and then at Metro Halifax. It was a one-year reporting fellowship with Maclean’s  that brought her to Toronto. After several years there, and a year each at Canadian Business and HuffPost, she was hired at the Star, where she landed in the city department.

Despite her considerable experience, Mendleson, now 37, is hardly the hard-bitten investigative reporter of the movies. Instead, she’s the kind of person who makes you feel at ease. She speaks softly, but with a great deal of precision, explaining complicated forensic testing as casually as if she were chatting with a friend. Her style is also casual. When I ask whether she fretted about what to wear to the CAJ awards, she gestures to the zip-up hoodie she’s wearing that day. “I literally have one blazer that I bought in the last ten years,” she says, laughing. “That is what I wore.” She’s quick to give credit to people she works with, and they are perhaps even quicker to return the compliment. One example: “She’s terrific in the sense that she understands looking at a story from 30,000 feet, and then also being on the ground,” says Michael Cooke, who was editor-in-chief of the Star when she began work on the Motherisk story.

Mendleson was drawn to the paper because of its social justice mandate and its investigative emphasis. She also finds her colleagues exceptionally talented. “The reporters here are just amazing and there’s so much to be inspired by. I know that sounds kind of cheesy,” she says. “Someone will ask, ‘Can you edit? Can you read over my story that I just wrote?’ And you read it, and you’re blown away.”

“Despite her considerable experience, Mendleson is hardly the hard-bitten investigative reporter of the movies, but instead the kind of person who makes you feel at ease.”

Mendleson’s big story began with a lunch. She was meeting a source in late October 2014 at a restaurant near the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. They were discussing a completely different story when her source asked if Mendleson had heard about the Broomfield decision that had just been made in the Court of Appeal. She hadn’t. The case involved Tamara Broomfield, who in 2010 had been convicted of feeding her toddler son, Malique, an almost lethal dose of cocaine. Though sentenced to seven years in jail, Broomfield had always maintained her innocence in relation to the cocaine charges. That decision had just been overturned by the Court of Appeal on the basis that new evidence suggested the testing at the Motherisk Drug Testing Lab, run out of SickKids, might have been faulty.

The lab was run by Dr. Gideon Koren, then a highly respected clinical pharmacologist and toxicologist who had founded it in 1985. Mendleson recalls being struck by the idea that the hospital might be embroiled in another debacle so soon after the scandal involving pathologist Charles Smith. “Real questions had been raised about forensic science coming out of SickKids, and another high profile but controversial scientist [was] involved in it,” she says. Smith, considered an expert in forensic child pathology, often testified in cases where children had died; testimony that had been used to convict parents or caregivers. In 2005, Dr. Barry McLellan, Ontario’s chief coroner, reviewed 45 child autopsies done by Smith in the 1990s. He took issue with Smith’s conclusions in 20 of the cases, eventually leading to Smith’s resignation from SickKids. Following the review, the Ontario government ordered a public inquiry, which was headed by Justice Stephen T. Goudge. Released in 2008, Goudge’s report found that Smith was lacking in basic knowledge about forensic pathology and made questionable ethical choices in his position. People who had been convicted in relation to one of Smith’s autopsies began to appeal their cases.

On November 1, 2014, the Star published a 1,200-word story in the crime section of the paper by Mendleson and Marco Chown Oved titled: “‘Crack mom’ conviction tossed out.” The story detailed the doubts that were raised about the science used to convict Broomfield back in 2010, specifically that the results of the hair testing used on Malique could not have been rigorous enough to confirm that he had ingested a substantial amount of the drug, as the prosecution was arguing.  An expert witness, Dr. Craig Chatterton, the deputy chief toxicologist in the office of the chief medical examiner of Alberta, testified he had concerns about the Motherisk lab’s screening technique—radioimmunoassay—to determine levels of Malique’s exposure to cocaine. These hair tests, he said, were only appropriate as a preliminary screening. A verification test should have been done. The story contained no comment from Gideon Koren. “In response to questions for this story, the Star received an email on Friday stating that Koren ‘is out of town and unfortunately cannot respond,’” Mendleson and Oved wrote. The article ended with a couple of sentences on Koren that suggested his stature and influence: “Koren’s resumé in the court file is 147 pages long. According to the SickKids website, he has trained pediatricians from more than 40 countries and published over 1,400 peer-reviewed papers in the area of pediatric pharmacology.”

Two days after the initial story about Broomfield’s successful appeal, the paper published another piece by Mendleson; the first to raise the issue of public confidence, suggesting that perhaps the Broomfield case might not be anomalous. As Toronto defense lawyer Daniel Brodsky was quoted saying, “Someone who has the means to examine what has been done in the past has to step up to the plate and satisfy the public that miscarriages of justice haven’t taken place.” Over the course of the next 28 days, the Star ran 18 more stories, 12 of which were by Mendleson. The first few stories dealt with the fallout from Broomfield’s successful appeal—that critics were calling for an investigation into the Motherisk lab. By November 6, Mendleson began to focus on SickKids’ response, or lack thereof. At this point, the hospital was releasing statements to the Star, defending the legitimacy of the Motherisk lab. Then, a story by Mendleson and Tim Alamenciak introduced a new element. “Ontario’s Ministry of Health has the power to trigger an investigation into concerns about the Motherisk laboratory at the Hospital for Sick Children, but it appears Minister Eric Hoskins will not take action,” they wrote.  

At this point, the Star had reported “concerns” about Motherisk and the reliability of its hair testing from Children’s Aid Societies, and family and criminal lawyers in Toronto. On November 18, 2014, it reported on concerns from Progressive Conservative MPP Jim McDonell, the Children and Youth Services Critic. Yet, Koren had not responded. While a representative from SickKids was providing statements, they reportedly declined interview requests. “There were some dark days where SickKids just was not responding [to us],” Mendleson recalls of that first month of reporting. “The Attorney General was not responding. The other ministries that had responsibility over the issue were not responding, and it was just like, I don’t know what else to do.”But as Cooke says, “It takes not just one story, it takes 27 of them—or more” to provoke a response. Irene Gentle, then the city editor at the Star and now editor-in-chief, agrees. In an email, she wrote, “It went very quickly from a story to investigation, and one of my favourite types of investigations—the kind where it unfolds in a series of fast stories rather than pulling everything together in one big drop. The frequent revelations have a real-time relentlessness to them.”

“It just felt like we were asking for this concrete thing for like six weeks of stories, dozens and dozens of stories, and finally they did it. It was like, thank goodness somebody is going to look at this.”

By November 26, 2014, after weeks of coverage by the Star, Ontario Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur finally ordered an independent review of hair tests done by Motherisk between 2005 and 2015. She appointed retired court of appeal justice Susan E. Lang to lead it. “It just felt like we were asking for this concrete thing for like six weeks of stories, dozens and dozens of stories, and finally they did it. It was like, thank goodness somebody is going to look at this,” Mendleson says of Lang’s appointment. In April 2015, just a few months after the review was established, SickKids shut down Motherisk’s Drug Testing Lab. In Lang’s 344-page report, released in December 2015, she found that “hair-strand drug and alcohol testing used by the Motherisk Drug Testing Laboratory 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.” She called for a further inquiry. In response, Mendleson and Jacques Gallant’s December 17 story was headlined: “Damning review of Motherisk drug testing sparks call for second probe.”

Mendleson had gone on maternity leave in October 2015, two months before Lang’s review was published. Gallant, who had been with the Star since 2013, had been assigned to take over for her while she was gone. Certain that most of the digging and investigating for the story would be done by the time she returned, Mendleson had a tough time letting go. “It was the worst. It was really hard. [Gallant] did a good job, but it was definitely hard to step away,” she says. Her resolve was further tested after SickKids issued an interim summary of an internal investigation that acknowledged there was uncertainty about Motherisk’s hair test. Mendleson had been asking for an interview with the hospital since she had begun her reporting. Finally, after the hospital’s report was released, she got an email offering her an exclusive interview with Michael Apkon, then president and CEO. But she was entering the early stages of labour. For a moment, she considered doing the interview, but her husband provided a necessary reality check. Even if she did do the interview, she couldn’t write the story. Gallant ended up meeting with Apkon. At the same time, Mendleson was having her baby right across the street at Mount Sinai Hospital.

While Mendleson was on leave, Gallant wrote 10 articles, mostly reporting on the heartbreaking stories of parents who had had their children taken away after testing done at the Motherisk lab, some of whom were suing SickKids and Motherisk. When Mendleson returned to the newsroom in October 2016, she realized there was still much to be done. She also had a new perspective. “When I first started investigating this, I didn’t have kids. I wasn’t pregnant,”she says, “but then all of a sudden, the stakes got way higher.” She recalls doing a Skype interview with a couple who had had their child taken away. She had just put her toddler to bed, and she mentioned to the couple that she may have to stop the interview to tend to him if he woke up. At the end of the interview, they commented that her son must have slept well, as she never had to go deal with him. “Oh, he was screaming at one point, but I didn’t go,” Mendleson joked.  The father responded that she should be careful, lest she get a visit from Children’s Aid. Mendleson knew that her position of privilege meant she would never end up in that situation, but for her sources, it was very much a part of their reality. “Look at the tools for a successful experience at being a mom I have versus people that really just need more support,” she says.

By the time she was back in October of 2016, there was another change. The review that Lang had called for was underway. Justice Judith C. Beaman had been appointed by the province to establish what she would later describe as a “Review and Resource Centre (the Motherisk Commission) to assist people whose lives had been affected by the testing. Our role was to review individual child protection cases and to provide information and referrals to counselling services and legal advice.” In the end, the commission examined over 1,200 cases. Mendleson would end up writing eight stories about the Commission’s work. “The Ontario Motherisk Commission’s two-year effort to repair the damage to families ripped apart by flawed drug and alcohol testing has produced sweeping recommendations aimed at preventing a similar tragedy, but in only a handful of cases has it reunited parents with their lost children,” Mendleson wrote on February 26, 2018.

“The case in Colorado demonstrated that experts had found Motherisk’s methods not up to standard, and so unreliable that in Colorado they were thrown out before the trial even began.”

In the early spring of 2017, while working on a story about how a scandal like the Charles Smith case could happen again, Mendleson called John Chipman, a producer at CBC Radio’s daily The Current. Chipman’s 2017 book, Death in the Family, had investigated what happened to the people whose lives had been ruined as a result of Smith’s faulty pathology. “We set up an interview time, and ended up really connecting over our shared interest in what was happening with the Motherisk commission, and what kind of justice there could be, or lack thereof for all these victims,” Mendleson says. They worked together on a pitch for a joint investigation into Motherisk to present to their respective editors, which Chipman also brought to producers at CBC’s investigative television program, The Fifth Estate. “At CBC, given our national audiences, it seemed like there would be an opportunity to kind of build on work that [Mendleson] had been doing,” Chipman says. Because Motherisk had clients all across the country, he says they wanted “to see what the reach was beyond Ontario and to see if other provinces were as aware of the issues surrounding Motherisk as a lot of the clients in Ontario were, given the coverage that Rachel had done for the Star.” Irene Gentle credits editor Lynn McAuley for organizing and overseeing the Star’s co-production with CBC. “Journalism has a financial crisis, but an imperative to do deep and meaningful work that aims to make a difference. Sometimes you do it alone, but sometimes it is better when we can work with partners. It is good for journalism and even better for the public,” she writes.

It was when Mendleson and Chipman started working together that they came across perhaps their most damning finding: a murder case in Colorado from 1993 that cast doubt on Motherisk’s testing method as viable evidence. They were sitting in Osgoode Hall, sifting through court testimony and scanning transcripts into their phones, when something caught Chipman’s attention. He called Mendleson over. When Koren had testified in Broomfield’s case about the accuracy of Motherisk’s testing results, he had said that they had not only been accepted all over Canada, but also in a Colorado murder trial. This was the first that Mendleson or Chipman had heard anything about the Colorado case, and they were determined to find out how that evidence was used. Library searches at the Star and CBC turned up nothing. They began cold calling lawyers in Colorado and The Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization committed to exonerating the wrongly convicted. “Everyone was lovely, but no one knew anything,” Mendleson says. With the specific case still a mystery, Mendleson went, as Chipman calls it, on a “deep Google.”

A clue finally came up; a footnote in a book from the early 2000s, which mentioned hair testing being thrown out in a murder case in Colorado.  “It’s the best journalism moment I think ever had,” Mendleson says. “Just that feeling of looking, looking, looking, looking, almost compulsively. I swear I was on page 24 of Google Scholar.” The footnote finally gave them the missing piece: the case name. Mendleson then ordered a Register of Actions (ROA) from the 1993 trial. “It was all on a lark because nothing in the news stories [at that time] said anything about hair testing evidence or Motherisk,” Mendleson says. While she waited for the ROA to arrive,  Mendleson came across newspaper articles about the case that named the lawyers who had represented the accused. One had died. The other, Robert Pepin, was still working as a public defender in Colorado. Mendleson contacted him. After speaking with Pepin, not only could she finally confirm that this was the case she had spent weeks looking for, but Pepin explained why she wouldn’t find mention of Motherisk or hair testing in any of the news stories or in the court transcripts. The Motherisk evidence had been deemed inadmissible in a pre-trial (or frye) hearing. When Mendleson finally did receive the ROA, she was able to order transcripts from the pre-trial hearing. As she later wrote, the hair testing evidence presented by Motherisk was blasted by the prosecutor as being “so deficient that it gave ‘legitimate researchers in this area a bad name.’ The judge who rejected Motherisk’s evidence compared the lab’s process to one in which the scientist ‘shot the arrow in the air, let it land, and then went and painted the target around the arrow.’”

The implication was clear, the case in Colorado demonstrated that experts had found Motherisk’s methods not up to standard, and so unreliable that in Colorado they were thrown out before the actual criminal trial even began. Mendleson and Chipman’s scoop was a prominent element in the October 19, 2017, Star series on Mendleson’s joint investigation with CBC. Combined, the three sections—“Separated by a hair,” “Rejected in Colorado,” and “Tarred by the test results”—were over 7,500 words. Together, the stories highlighted different facets of the faulty hair testing lab that had torn apart so many families. The series highlighted stories of families who couldn’t manage to regain custody of their children, and the heartache that continued even when they did. One mother, only referred to as Angela, eventually regained custody of her children after proving that she did not drink alcohol—let alone abuse alcohol chronically, as the Motherisk test suggested. When her youngest daughter returned, then 13 years old, she had developed anxiety issues. The Current and The Fifth Estate both aired Motherisk episodes on October 20, 2017. The segment on The Current was mostly an interview with Chipman, during which he explained what had happened with Motherisk and how it affected families, referencing interviews he had done with people in Colorado about the 1993. Linda Guerriero and Lynette Fortune, producers on The Fifth Estate, had gone to Nova Scotia and British Columbia, respectively, to speak to families in those provinces who had had their children taken away because of Motherisk testing.

But there was also another focus for the 45-minute episode, called, “Motherisk: Tainted Tests & Broken Families.” After almost three years of reporting, no one had been able to get in touch with Koren. As Mark Kelley, a host and reporter for the show recalls, “We asked ourselves…where in the world is Gideon Koren now?” When he found out Koren was still speaking at conferences, he was shocked. “I didn’t even believe it at first. I said, there’s no possible way that this guy is still being given ovations by crowds. And he goes to talk about what his experience has taught him.” And yet, Koren was scheduled to talk at a conference in Windsor, England, so Kelley went to try to talk to Koren. Kelley and his cameraperson were the only journalists present in the room where Koren was speaking. Kelley positioned himself by Koren’s laptop and coat when Koren was returning from speaking with other delegates after the lunch break. As we see in the episode, Koren walks over to where Kelley is standing and Kelley introduces himself. At first, Koren looks quite pleased that a journalist is so keen to speak to him. “And then I said, ‘I’m Mark Kelley from The Fifth Estate.’ And then his smile faded like a sunset,” Kelley recalls. “No, I will not answer,” Koren said. Kelley pressed him further, saying that the families who were torn apart want to know what was going on in the lab. “Legal instructions. I cannot talk about that,” Koren responded, and then swiftly left the room. The encounter was broadcast in The Fifth Estate episode.

Today, Koren is listed as working at Maccabitech, a research institute in Israel. According to his biography on its website, he is “a senior investigator, leading the research in clinical pharmacology/toxicology, and actively involved in developing the clinical aspects of the Big Data analysis.” It also notes that he is teaching clinical toxicology at Tel Aviv, Hebrew, and Ben Gurion universities, and mentions his 35-year teaching career at the University of Toronto. Both SickKids and Motherisk are noticeably absent from his bio. On December 21, 2018, Mendleson reported that Physicians for Human Rights Israel had alerted the parent company of Maccabitech to Koren’s scandals back in Canada. The article also stated that as of December 5, 2018, Maccabi had appointed a committee to look into Koren.

Back in Toronto, Motherisk continues to operate, but only as an information resource.  There is a help line that pregnant women can call if they have questions, and the website has information like which medications are safe to consume during pregnancy. The website also includes updates on SickKids’ own review of the now-disgraced Motherisk testing lab.

“Over the course of about a year, the team had reviewed over 1,500 of Koren’s publications. They found problems in more than 400… Only in 18 of those cases had the journals printed a correction.”

Justice Beaman’s report on the Motherisk Commission was published in February 2018. Mendleson’s resulting story revealed that after a review of almost 1,300 cases, the Commission identified 56 families that “were ‘broken apart’ because of flawed testing at the Hospital for Sick Children’s Motherisk lab.” According to the Star’s reporting, by that point, only four families had been reunited. Mendleson also reported on some of Beaman’s recommendations, which included: Children’s Aid Societies requiring valid written consent when requesting “bodily samples;” expanding funding for legal aid in child protection cases that involve expert evidence; and federal funding for First Nations band representatives so they could participate in these child protection proceedings. Beaman’s report found that Indigenous families were disproportionately affected by Motherisk. Almost 15 percent of the cases the commission reviewed involved Indigenous people, who make up 2.8 percent of Ontario’s population. Between October 2017 and November 2018, Mendleson wrote nine more Motherisk stories. Six were about a dismissed class-action lawsuit, which is currently being appealed. She also wrote about how the commission had seemingly overlooked Indigenous communities, and continues to report on cases of people affected by Motherisk testing, including those missed by the Commission entirely, like the September 2018 story about a woman named Joyce whose conviction was overlooked during the government’s internal review.

After winning the CAJ award in 2018, Mendleson went on a seven-week leave to work on a book about the story behind the story of the Motherisk investigation. “[The reporting] should be done. It’s not done yet because the story just keeps going,” Mendleson says. “I’m working on the third part, which is the fallout of all the reporting, and the issue is that the fallout continues to develop.” Some of that fallout appeared in the Star during the week of December 17, 2018 when two stories were published. The first, published online on the 16th and in print on the 17th, reported that SickKids was ordering a systematic review of Koren’s published works. Two days earlier, on December 14, the hospital had released a statement that it would be investigating Koren’s published work, directly acknowledging the investigative work of Mendleson and Michele Henry, a fellow investigative reporter at the Star who has assisted with the investigation. “We’ve never ever seen anything like that before,” Mendleson says. “Everyone was floored that they did that.”

A second story, which was published on December 21, was a more investigative, data-driven piece that looked at the ways in which Koren’s published work was problematic and the flawed systems that allowed it to go unnoticed. Mendleson wrote both articles, along with Henry, and data analyst Andrew Bailey. Four Ryerson students also helped with the investigation as part of Robert Cribb’s investigative class: Stefanie Phillips, Emerald Bensadoun, Kate Skelly and Ryerson Review of Journalism Senior Online Editor Alanna Rizza. Over the course of about a year, the team reviewed approximately 1,500 of Koren’s publications. They found problems in more than 400. Over 60 dealt with drug and alcohol hair testing. Others contained undisclosed conflicts of interest, or included lies about methodology used to test hair for drugs. Only in 18 of those cases had the journals printed a correction or clarification.

Meanwhile, Mendleson was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with her second child. Her last day of work before going on maternity leave was December 21, 2018, the day the Star published the second article. This time, she wasn’t as anxious about being away. “I feel like the story is a lot more complete. I feel like it really took this long to bring these issues to light. And this was the last thing that’s been nagging at me, this academic-journal-publication thing, because I’ve been feeling like they really had to do something about this,” she says. “I think it’s a good time to step away a little bit and just kind of recalibrate.”

Acclaimed journalist and author Jodi Kantor once compared investigative journalism to an archaeological dig. Mendleson paraphrases: “You’ve got a brontosaurus under there, but you can only excavate one bone at a time.” Of her own investigation, she says, “I did not know there was a brontosaurus under there. I guess I’ll keep digging, and, oh, there’s another bone. I have no idea if these are related. I don’t know if there’s more bones and, like, there’s a brontosaurus under there.”

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