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Treatment courts help connect veterans with medical services

Special to the Legal News

Published: May 28, 2013

For many, the word “veteran” conjures up images of proud, accomplished individuals and dedicated service men and women who flourish in their communities.

Rarely do images of struggling veterans come to mind, but the reality is this proud and dedicated population often returns home suffering from mental illnesses and substance abuse habits caused by their military experiences.

“We sent them to war and the war created the criminal in them. We have an obligation to help them get their lives back,” said Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, an advocate for veterans treatment courts in Ohio.

As a retired justice for the Supreme Court of Ohio and a long-time member of Ohio’s legal community, Stratton has seen what happens to these suffering individuals far too often.

“They don’t want to get treatment, they don’t want to admit that they’re having trouble, there’s this code of honor in silence and so they self-medicate and start turning to alcohol and drugs,” she said. “They can’t function in ordinary life and so they end up in the criminal justice system.”

For years, veterans, like others with mental illnesses, were treated by courts like any other criminal. They were sentenced, and often went to prison, with no regard for their condition.

This left a large population dealing with undiagnosed problems and no help in dealing with them.

As a consequence, veterans ended up homeless, unemployed or underemployed, and isolated from their communities.

That was until about four years ago when Stratton was introduced to the idea of veterans treatment courts while crusading for mental health courts on a trip to Washington D.C.

Viewing these veterans treatment courts as a fusion of a drug court and a mental health court, Stratton added veterans courts to her advocacy for mental health courts and soon began working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to establish a program that could work for Ohio courts.

The first step in Stratton’s plan was to establish the Veterans Justice Outreach, a program that places a case worker in every VA hospital.

Judges can then call upon those case workers to come into court, establish that a defendant is a veteran, verify what services are available for that veteran, book appointments with the proper doctors, and even book transportation to and from those appointments.

After starting with five Veterans Justice Outreach case workers, Ohio now has 10 available to its judges, but starting out Stratton found a problem.

“I came back to Ohio all excited for the program we were going to roll out and I found out no one asked — none of the judges, none of the courts asked if someone was a veteran,” Stratton said of her first major roadblock.

Stratton then started her Veterans Wrap Around Project, which helped to educate judges about the injuries often suffered by veterans and the way those injuries can present themselves.

She encouraged judges to ask if a defendant had military experience and explained that the first step had to be with the courts themselves.

Stratton’s work helped in passing a statute that now requires Ohio judges to ask about a defendant’s military background.

She is quick to say that it does not mandate what a judge does with that information, but it does require that they at least ask.

“It’s come a long way from trying to find any judge to even ask to now it’s law that they have to,” she said, noting that questions are now in the presentence investigation and the Ohio Risk Assessment Tool that judges will have to use.

“We put screens in there to recognize their veterans background and question about ‘Were you injured? Where were you injured? What type of injury? Did you get treatment?’ So all of those things can help a judge make a better decision about what to do,” she said.

This allows judges to call in the Veterans Justice Outreach case worker and get the veteran in touch with local services ranging from treatment for mental health issues and drug and alcohol habits to finding a home and getting help with unemployment and disability.

The case worker can also assign a peer mentor. The mentor is a fellow veteran, usually from the same war that can act as a counselor, accompany the defendant to court hearings, help them make and keep appointments, and be a friend to call when the defendant starts feeling down.

“They won’t often open up and talk to somebody that’s not in the military, but you bring in a military person and they will,” Stratton said.

Stratton said part of the problem is that not enough vets know about the programs available to them.

“I mean, it was like the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing. I’ve done four statewide summits and the purpose was to get everybody to talk a little bit about what they did with vets,” she said, listing participants including the Attorney General’s Office, the Ohio Department of Mental Health, the VA, and the Ohio Department of Drug and Alcohol Addiction Services.

“Everybody had a program, but nobody was connected to anybody else and nobody knew what anybody else was doing.”

Last spring Ohio had established six veterans treatment courts — that number has grown to 14 and Stratton said that number continues to climb.

Right now, she said, any court can be a vet court if it labels itself as such, but they have to be certified to become an official veteran treatment court, meaning Ohio could have more than 14 courts using the program that have not yet completed certification.

She also emphasized that a veteran treatment court is not a separate court, but is a docket organization tool that helps judges schedule all of their veterans on the same day so that a VJO case worker can be present.

It also makes sense to keep these defendants together because Stratton said they tend to act differently than other defendants.

“They’re more used to law and order and they’re used to command. They really are very motivated to get well, very respectful, they’re kind of a different breed and when you put them together it kind of helps,” she said.

Stratton stepped down from the high court in December to focus more on veterans treatment courts and mental health courts.

She emphasized that these individuals deserve to be treated differently, while still being held accountable, because they were changed while serving their country.

It is now important, she stated, that their country help them to return to normal and understand their problems, rather than dismissing them.

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