STORY AND PHOTOS BY BERNARD EDELMAN
It started in Buffalo, New York, with a judge named Robert Russell who was looking for answers, and veteran activists led by Jack O’Connor, the late Hank Pirowski, and Patrick Welch, many of them members of Western New York Chapter 77, who wanted to help him.
Russell, an affable and popular Criminal Court judge first elected in 1992, was responsible for establishing mental health and drug treatment courts in Erie County. He kept noticing veteranssome not so young, others recently returned from the chaos of combat in Afghanistan and Iraqcome before him, charged with a variety of low-level felonies and misdemeanors.
“It was an incident in late 2006 with this one veteran that got me to thinking,” relates Russell, who has pioneered a national movement that Patrick Welch has called “the most profound change in the attitude of our criminal justice system toward veterans in the history of this country.”
This one veteran, Russell says, “was six-four or six-five, a real big guy. We had him linked to one of our community mental health treatment providers. But they weren’t making much headway. He wasn’t participating in the group counseling; he would just sit there. In the one-on-one counseling, he wasn’t much engaged either.”
One day, when the veteran, whom Russell knew had served in Vietnam, was in court, “I called the case. As he’s approaching this little podium area in front of the bench, his posture is slumped. He’s not making any eye contact. I asked him, ‘What’s going on with you?’ His mumbled responses weren’t clear.
“My project director, Hank Pirowski, a Marine Vietnam veteran, was standing next to this guy. And Jack O’Connor was in the courtroomJack would stop by periodically to check in on my courtand I knew Jack was a Vietnam veteran, and served in the 82nd Airborne. I’m like, ‘Hey, Jack. Would you mind taking this guy out into the hallway? Talk to him.’ ”
It wasn’t more than twenty minutes later when they came back into the courtroom. Judge Russell had the court clerk recall the case. “This guy approaches the podium. He stands in front of me with his head raised, at parade rest. Then he looks directly at me and says, ‘Judge, I’m going to try harder.’
“After court, I asked Hank and Jack to come back to my office,” Russell says. “ ‘What happened? What did you say to this guy? What did you all do to him?’ They told me, ‘We talked about where he served in Nam. And after some general discussion we said, “Look, we really want you to get well. We’re all trying to see what we can do to help you move forward. We care about you. We want you to do better. Come on, we need you engaged in your counseling.” ’
“‘You mean to tell me this guy, being in counseling, they can’t make any headway? And talking to a couple of vets, he responds like that?’ ” The judge was astonished. And intrigued.
“It set me to think that we need to do something more than what we’re doing now,” he says. Then Hank Pirowski offered a suggestion: “Judge, why don’t we set aside a day for vets that we’re seeing who have a clinical diagnosis of mental health disease or disorder, dependency on substances, or both, and set them on a calendar?”
That was the beginning. O’Connor got the judge an invitation to the next meeting of the Veterans Advisory Board at the Buffalo VAMC, where he met Patrick Welch. He told the group that he was considering setting aside a morning or afternoon for a veterans-only docket, for those in need of treatment-related services. What do you think? he asked.
Then, Russell remembers, people around the room started raising their hands. “One guy said, ‘I want to volunteer.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I want to help.’ And then around the room, all the veterans raised their hands and said, ‘I’ll volunteer.’ That was like, wow. I said, ‘Well, understand, I’ve got no idea what it looks like.’ They said, ‘We want to help you do this.’ So we started meeting there monthly.”
One of the first things this ad hoc group did was to ask questions that needed answers if this new court was to succeed. That the VAinitially the Veterans Health Administration, joined later by the Veterans Benefits Administrationwas on board from the beginning was a coup. They soon arranged for their Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) coordinators to bring laptops into the courtroom to facilitate immediate access to a veteran’s medical record and benefits if they were in the VA system, said Lt. Nikki Slaughter, the VA’s first VJO there. If the veteran was in the system, appointments could be scheduled, and lab results, such as for urine tests, obtained right then and there.
“If the VA hadn’t allowed those computers in this court,” says O’Connor, “there wouldn’t be a veterans court.”
For veterans ineligible for VA benefits, community-based providers had to be located and vetted. Then there was the matter of getting the prosecuting and defense attorneys to agree to work in concert in seeking justice for the veteran defendant and for the accuser. Getting other parts of the criminal justice systempolice and probation officers and corrections personnelalong with elected officials and community leaders to buy into this untried court concept was a challenge. The goal was to provide “smart, effective, evidence-based justice,” says Chris Deutsch, communications director for Justice for Vets, a program of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
The effectiveness of these courts, Deutsch says, lies is the number of worthy lives restored, of families kept intact, and communities strengthened. Another measure of success is the number of recidivists among the veterans who elect to go along with the programa regimen that can be far more difficult than doing a straight bit in jail or prison.
Without firm answers to all the proceedural questions, the Buffalo Veterans Court began operations in January 2008. A pioneering effort, it has become a national model.
In addition to the key role played by the VA, another element has come to be viewed as essential to the successful operation of a Veterans Treatment Court: trained peer mentors. They have proven to be much more than an asset. They are part of, yet apart from, the rest of a treatment court team in that they don’t work for the court and don’t report to the judge.
“You’ve got to have vets working with vets; you’ve got to have vets encouraging vets,” says Judge Russell. “Some treatment courts might start off working with the VA, but they might be lacking that veteran mentor piece. I’m thinking that they’re missing out on the real gem to not incorporate peer mentoring. There’s so much value in it. There is so much value even for our veterans who volunteer. Mentoring also holds healing properties for them.”
As Phil Ippolito, the assistant coordinator for mentors at the Buffalo Veterans Court, puts it: “A mentor simply says to a veteran, ‘I’ve walked a mile in your boots. I’m not a counselor. I’m not a doctor. I’m a fellow veteran.’ ” Mentors, adds Pat Welch, “are here to give a hand up, not a handout.” They provide resources about education and housing and jobsand encouragement during a difficult time.
VVA member Kenny Moore, the outreach coordinator for Monroe County, New York, Veteran Services, was a key resource when the court was established in Rochester. There were some “obvious” initial concerns, he says: Must a Marine mentor a Marine? Should an Iraq War vet mentor a vet who served in Iraq or Afghanistan?
“I’m 72 years old and this kid I’m asked to mentor is 24,” Moore says. “How is this going to work out? It turns out that branch of service has never been an issue. As far as the age thing, they know that we’ve been there and done that. ‘Look,’ we tell them, ‘I was in combat in Vietnam, so you’re not going to tell me something I’ve never heard before.’
“I’ve always told themand I know the other guys have, too‘Look, if you get up at two o’clock in the morning on a Friday and you have the urge to do some cocaine or whatever, I would rather you call me and get my butt out of bed. I’ll meet you down at the coffee shop, and let’s sit and talk. I’d rather do that with you than see you stumble.’ And some of them will do that, once they know you’re really there to help them.”
One who has been helped is Manny Welch. A Navy veteran whose brushes with the law resulted from too many drugs and too much alcohol, he was one of the first to enter the program at the Buffalo Veterans Court, and one of the first to graduate.
“The journey from the bottom, from being hopeless, helpless, and useless, to where I am today [a peer support specialist for the VA] is all because of the mentors in the Buffalo Veterans Court,” he says.
Justice for Vets, the central resource for jurisdictions considering establishing a Veterans Treatment Court, counts 220 Veterans Courts across the country, with hundreds more in various stages of development.
Four courtsin Buffalo and Rochester, New York; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Orange County, Californiaare “official” Justice for Vets Mentor Veterans Treatment Courts. As such, they help develop, identify, and test national best practices and provide technical assistance to communities interested in starting a Veterans Treatment Court. Information can be obtained at www.JusticeForVets.org
One of the most recent jurisdictions to embrace the Veteran Court concept is Fairfax County, Virginia. Again, members of Vietnam Veterans of America played a crucial role. Don Northcutt, a VVA life member, is the mentor coordinator for the county’s Veterans Treatment Docket. He and fellow veteran volunteers, many from Northern Virginia Chapter 227, are doing their part to live up to the VVA motto, “In Service to America.”
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