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•Veterans in crisis, or concerned friends or family members, can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 for 24/7 support. They may also chat online at veteranscrisisline.net or send a text message to 838255.
•Additional information is available at www.veteranscrisisline.net

A different court for vets?

Emphasis is on treatment of mental health rather than incarceration

In mid-March, a 38-year-old Fort Wayne man led police on a low-speed chase down Taylor Street and onto Fairfield Avenue.

According to police, the man physically fought with his wife in their home in the 1300 block of Taylor Street, left in a minivan and, when she tried to stop him by jumping in, drove off with her legs hanging out the front door.

The minivan bounced off a squad car and a mail truck until the man was finally stopped. He then ran onto the elevated railroad tracks on Fairfield and had to be pulled back over the rails after threatening to jump. An officer injured his shoulder in the process, according to police reports.

Fort Wayne police officers took the man into custody and to a local hospital, where he was admitted for 72 hours. While at the hospital, he tried to bite employees and tore up the rails on a gurney. Police wondered whether he had ingested some kind of drug.

According to police reports, the man is a U.S. Army veteran and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

The fight began when his mother called from her home in Florida and talked to him about getting some help.

Allen County prosecutors charged the man with a felony count of resisting law enforcement with a vehicle and misdemeanor charges of domestic battery, criminal recklessness and two counts failure to stop after an accident resulting in damage to a vehicle.

It appears to be his only run-in with the criminal justice system, except for a speeding ticket in 2005.

In some communities, such as Delaware County to the south, the man’s case could be heard by a veterans court – a type of problem-solving court growing in number across the country that was developed to deal with veterans suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries.

Allen County does not have a veterans court program, though officials are looking into whether the county has the numbers of veterans who would use such a program to justify its creation.

Those who work with veterans say the courts provide a much more effective way of treating veterans with mental health issues than turning first to incarceration.

Readjustment

According to the organization Justice for Vets, which is headed by retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, one in five veterans has symptoms of a mental health disorder or cognitive impairment.

One in six veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan is dealing with a substance abuse issue. And research continues to tie substance abuse to combat-related mental illness.

James Lowery is the supervisory psychologist with the Veterans Administration Northern Indiana Health Care System. Before that, he supervised mental health care for the Indiana Department of Correction through his work with a private contractor. His work included parole evaluations and working with inmates on death row.

At the VA, Lowery supervises inpatient mental health treatment, the outpatient psychotherapy clinics, a residential substance abuse clinic and the VA’s PTSD treatment programs.

He also supervises the Veterans Justice Outreach Program, which includes working with the Delaware County Veterans Court.

“People who return home from combat may have a hard time readjusting to civilian life,” Lowery said.

To avoid that difficulty, some may turn to drugs or alcohol to help adjust, he said.

That creates a whole new set of problems, particularly when the veteran commits an act that gets the police involved.

“Your inhibitions are lowered and you act in such a way that you are a threat to society and a threat to yourself,” Lowery said.

When courts create a veterans-only docket, they allow the veterans to build rapport with one judge and a specific staff that is trained in veterans’ issues, and it can connect them directly to services available to veterans through the VA or other federal, state and local agencies.

And it is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

“If someone does not work in their treatment program, they go back to court and they may go back to prison. That’s really up to the court,” Lowery said.

Is it needed?

Allen County already has a number of problem-solving courts – Drug Court, administered by Superior Court Judge Fran Gull; Re-entry Court, administered by Superior Court Judge John Surbeck; and a mental health-focused Restoration Court, administered by Circuit Judge Tom Felts.

Both Restoration Court and Drug Court are beginning to see veterans with mental health and substance abuse problems come through their doors.

Gull is looking at whether a Veterans Court would fit into her Drug Court program. The few veterans who have made their way to her courtroom have shown that they face some unique challenges.

Many, Gull said, suffer from untreated PTSD, which has played into their substance abuse problem – which then led to their offense and brought them to her court.

This summer, Gull and her entire Drug Court staff will attend a national conference on drug courts and attend workshops on veterans courts.

Indiana officials encourage counties with problem-solving courts to put veterans in their own separate track, Gull said.

Felts said Restoration Court is one step ahead in the Veterans Court process and is already trying to secure funding for its own Veterans Justice Outreach officer, or VJO.

“If you don’t have a (VJO), you can do a certain amount of stuff, but you’re missing the biggest advantage of the tie-in to the veterans’ benefits,” Felts said. “I’m hoping it happens soon.”

Because Felts’ Restoration Court is certified to deal with offenders with a mental health diagnosis, the mental health problems of veterans would be a natural fit. And in Restoration Court, participants receive a mental health screening that is not present in Drug Court, Felts said.

“It wouldn’t be a stretch at all to make them a subset of the (Restoration Court),” he said.

When veterans come into Drug Court, Gull uses the VA’s services for them exclusively.

She’s not sure whether there is enough need in Allen County to justify the creation of a separate court for veterans, but she believes that, if the need exists and they have the resources to create a veterans court, the court will have the support of Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards and defense lawyers.

Richards said she is open to working with the courts if a need is identified.

Gull believes that veterans, while they should not be given a pass to wreak havoc on the community, are entitled to special consideration for their sacrifices and suffering on behalf of the nation.

“It is recognition that, in exchange for protecting our freedom, they gave a piece of themselves,” she said. “We owe veterans the opportunity to fix themselves.”

rgreen@jg.net

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