GO PUBLIC

Court clerk with PTSD fighting province, insurer to go back to work

A court clerk who developed PTSD from ‘relentless’ exposure to gruesome trial evidence has been fighting the Ontario government and Manulife insurance for over a year, to get back to work.

WARNING: This story contains accounts of disturbing testimony from criminal trials

Former Ontario court clerk Sandra Curtis says no one listened when she tried to tell supervisors that disturbing trials were taking a toll on her mental health — eventually leading to a diagnosis of PTSD. (Douglas Husby/CBC)

A court clerk who developed PTSD from "relentless" exposure to gruesome trial evidence has been fighting the Ontario government and Manulife insurance for over a year, to get back to work.

Day after day Sandra Curtis, 55, had to listen to the details of horrific crimes recounted inside the Quinte Courthouse in Belleville, Ontario.

She tried using earplugs to block the disturbing audio from child pornography videos. 

She stuffed tissue in her ears to mute the graphic details of a man who stabbed his girlfriend to death, and a father who repeatedly raped his 13-year-old daughter and filmed it. 

As a human being, it's hard to hear those things.- Sandra Curtis

"It was never-ending," says Curtis. "As a human being, it's hard to hear those things. So I shoved it down and down."

She broke two crowns from grinding her teeth. She developed difficulty sleeping and migraines, and dreaded going to work.

The tipping point, she says, was the trial of a military sergeant accused of soliciting sex online with a three-year-old being offered up by her mother — which was actually an undercover U.S. Homeland Security special agent.

"You have to have a poker face — which you should in the courtroom," says Curtis. "But it's not a nice thing to hear. As a mother, you react."

On July 22, 2016, Curtis couldn't contain her emotions any longer and started crying in the courtroom. She left the courthouse and went on stress leave.

"I don't think I made the decision to leave," she says. "I think my body just gave out. I thought, 'I can't go back.'"

'Bureaucratic hell' begins 

It was the beginning of what Curtis describes as a "bureaucratic hell" that has consumed her life, and taken over an entire spare bedroom in her house.

Paperwork is organized in piles across a queen-size bed. More papers are stacked on top of a chest of drawers and arranged on the floor. 

All of it letters, forms and requests for information from both her employer, the Ministry of the Attorney General, and her insurer, Manulife.  

Curtis says she has been overwhelmed by a flood of bureaucratic paperwork in her attempts to return to work as a court clerk in Belleville, Ont. (Douglas Husby/CBC)

After six months off the job, Curtis says she felt ready to return to work in a clerical or administrative capacity but not in a courtroom.

Since January 2017, her records show Curtis has been bounced from Manulife caseworker to caseworker — six in total — adding to her frustration and compounding her mental health issues.  

Tried to push her back into the courtroom

Curtis's family physician has written numerous letters saying the repeated exposure to disturbing trial details has affected his patient's well-being, and although she is now able to return to work, it should not be as a court clerk.

A psychiatrist assigned by Manulife to assess Curtis also says she is capable of returning to a job in the courthouse but also recommended that Curtis not be placed inside a courtroom.

A second psychiatrist has diagnosed Curtis with PTSD, and says she could be triggered by future exposure to grim evidence at trial.

I've gotten stuck in this machine that I'm supposed to navigate myself.- Sandra Curtis

Despite this, Manulife tried last September to get Curtis to return to the job of court clerk. In January, the insurance company cut off her benefits temporarily, and then restored them without explanation.

"It's just been overwhelming," says Curtis. "I've gotten stuck in this machine that I'm supposed to navigate myself. I'm in limbo."

Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General declined an interview request, sending a statement saying it couldn't comment on Curtis's case due to privacy reasons.  

Three medical experts have said Curtis can return to work at this courthouse, but not to a job inside the courtroom. Her employer won’t specify why she has not yet been called back to work. (Douglas Husby/CBC)

This despite the fact Curtis sent written permission for her employer to discuss her case with Go Public.

Ministry spokesperson Brian Gray wrote, "The accommodation of persons with disabilities is an essential component of the Ontario Public Service commitment to diversity and inclusion" and that the OPS "takes employees' mental health and overall well-being very seriously, and has developed a mental health framework to support this priority."

"It's totally lip service," says Curtis, who says she asked supervisors for help "many times" when she began struggling, and was never offered any assistance.

Curtis has now filed a grievance through her union, writing in a complaint that her employer has "violated the Human Rights Code by failing to accommodate my disability."

She is seeking "a permanent accommodation immediately" — meaning, a related clerical or administrative job.

Her grievance is expected to be heard next month. 

Curtis's workplace insurer Manulife also said, in a statement to Go Public, that it couldn't discuss her case due to privacy concerns "both individual and corporate."

"We assess all group benefits claims carefully and do our very best to both adhere to our obligation as an insurer and make these decisions in a fair and timely manner," wrote Beverley MacLean, spokesperson for Manulife's Canadian operations.

Help for jurors affected by trials

While Curtis desperately seeks help as a court clerk, a federal parliamentary committee recently released a report on improving support for jurors, recommending that provinces and territories provide better training and psychological supports for people exposed to gruesome evidence in criminal trials.

B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Yukon have all started such programs.

The changes come after juror Mark Farrant developed PTSD during the 2014 trial of Farshad Badakhshan, a Toronto man who was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder in the death of his 23-year-old girlfriend. 

The trial lasted four months, and Farrant says the sometimes grisly evidence profoundly affected his mental health.

"I couldn't be in social settings, couldn't manage anxiety," Farrant told Go Public. "I had flashbacks, couldn't get a number of images out of my head. It's unrelenting."

Former juror Mark Farrant became an advocate for mental health after grisly details in a murder trial severely affected his well-being. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

Farrant says he can relate to Curtis's problem.

"I often wondered about the court staff as I looked around the room," Farrant said. 

"They were listening to the same material I was, and then would cover another case following the conclusion of my trial. So while I go home and try to adjust to my life, that individual is being exposed to repeated disturbing material."

Farrant is suing the provincial and federal governments for compensation. 

175,000 off the job

According to the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, in any given week, approximately 175,000 full-time employees are absent from work due to mental illness.

Curtis doesn't want to be included in that statistic one more day.

"I was a good employee," she says, pointing out that she never missed a day's work before she took leave. "Now I feel isolated. I feel abandoned. I don't know what to do."

Submit your story ideas

Go Public is an investigative news segment on CBC-TV, radio and the web.

We tell your stories and hold the powers that be accountable.

We want to hear from people across the country with stories you want to make public.

Submit your story ideas at Go Public.

Follow @CBCGoPublicon Twitter.

About the Author

Erica Johnson

Investigative reporter

Erica Johnson is an award-winning investigative journalist. She hosted CBC's consumer program Marketplace for 15 years, investigating everything from dirty hospitals to fraudulent financial advisors. As co-host of the CBC news segment Go Public, Erica continues to expose wrongdoing and hold corporations and governments to account.

With files from Enza Uda