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USDTL Research

Who Cares About Chain of Custody?

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We do, and we hope you do too. A few simple steps can make all the difference in the world to a newborn. 

by Joseph Jones, MS, NRCC-TC

At the time the decision is made to order a newborn drug test, staff has determined that there is an elevated risk that the newborn has been exposed to illicit drugs of abuse or alcohol, and that the exposure needs to be documented for the child. The following are some of the risk factors that may indicate newborn substance exposure:

Journal of Perinatology (2006) 26, 660-666. doi:10.1038/; published online 12 October 2006.

These newborns are coming into the world with an unfair advantage, and desperately need these tests to give them a voice for their future. Because of their exposure they may face major hurdles in learning, growing, and thriving, but without solid forensic evidence, they have no way to prove they were ever exposed. Without having forensically defensible evidence of exposure, courts might not be able to use the evidence, therefore, mothers may not be required/ordered to seek treatment, the newborn may go into an unsafe environment, and the list goes on. This is where the chain of custody comes in as the first step in guaranteeing the integrity of a specimen, and starting the process of forensically defensible testing.

According to LexisNexis,1 a chain of custody is a document or process that demonstrates that the integrity of the identity of evidence (such as a specimen) has been maintained from the time of its collection to the time its destruction. With regard to our testing, a tamper-evident seal is affixed to the specimen at the time of collection, such that gaining access to, or tampering with, the specimen would break the seal. A tamper-evident seal is such that it cannot be obviously replaced without leaving a tell-tale sign of tampering,2 such as tearing easily or breaking into multiple pieces. This assures that the specimen has not been altered or tampered with from the time of collection until it is received into the laboratory. In addition to the tamper-evident seal, the specimen must also be labeled with unique identifying information which assures the identity and origin of the specimen. 

The following elements are required for a documented chain of custody:

  • Name of the individual or secure location that received the evidence, 

  • Name of the individual or secure location that released the evidence,

  • Date and/or time of the transfer, 

  • Purpose of the transfer.

These elements are captured for each transfer of evidence, such as when the evidence is passed from one individual to another, or from one individual to a secure location. These elements may be documented on standardized forms or through electronic media.  

Chain of custody may be established by first hand testimony or by using written documentation.  Each individual that possessed a piece of evidence can be interrogated to discover when they had possession of the evidence, why they had possession of the evidence, and who they transferred the evidence to. Because of this, first hand testimony (verbal chain of custody) has obvious limitations, especially for professionals that may handle dozens or even hundreds of pieces of evidence in a single day. Therefore, written documentation of the chain of custody during the process, and in real time, is critical.

Why is it so critical?

Most jurisdictions require that positive test results are reported to the appropriate authorities, and several jurisdictions consider in utero exposure to drugs of abuse or alcohol as per se child abuse.  The results of the newborn toxicology test provide the appropriate authorities with objective forensic evidence for their case.3 Kwong and Ryan (1997) warned that these findings may be vigorously challenged by the mother or her family therefore it is critical that the specimen’s identity is assured with a complete, unbroken, and documented chain of custody. Therefore, maintaining a documented chain of custody is critical to demonstrate to the State the identity and integrity of the specimen whose result will be used for major life changing decisions. This is why all forensically accredited laboratories are required to have chain of custody with all of their tests, without exception.

The chain of custody is a few simple steps, taken during the collection of newborn drug tests, that can make all of the difference in the world to the newborn. A newborn drug test is a once in a lifetime opportunity to detect exposure. If substance exposure isn’t detected shortly after birth, there is no other testing during that child’s life that can do so. There is just one opportunity to provide a voice for the voiceless; one opportunity to provide help to the helpless. It is our duty as advocates for these newborns to make sure we are taking every step possible, whenever possible, to make their lives better. For newborn drug testing, that means it all starts with a simple chain of custody form.


1. LexisNexis. Applied Discovery (2016). Chain of Custody Log. Retrieved from

2. U.S. Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. Office for Victims of Crime. SART Toolkit (DOJ; 2016). Chain of Custody. Retrieved from

3. Kwong, T. C., & Ryan, R. M. (1997). Detection of intrauterine illicit drug exposure by newborn drug testing. Clinical Chemistry, 43(1), 235–242. 

Joseph Jones is the Senior Vice President for USDTL with more than 25 years of experience in the forensic toxicology industry. Jones has provided expert testimony in a variety of venues throughout the country and appears as an author on over a dozen peer-reviewed scientific articles. Jones is listed by The National Registry of Certified Chemists as a Toxicological Chemist, CAP Laboratory Inspector, and qualified as an expert in drug testing in several venues including union arbitration, unemployment hearings, family court, civil court, criminal court and Military courts-martial and frequently gives workshops, presentations and webinars.

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