FORT WAYNE – Camouflage and boots are a natural in the home of Allen Superior Court Judge Fran Gull, whose family members have a long history with the nation’s armed forces.
Her father was career Air Force. Her brother died in 1999, while serving with the Army’s special forces. Her son is currently serving in the Army, with multiple deployments to combat zones in recent years.
So when she stood before a bank of television cameras Tuesday morning to unveil the Allen County criminal justice system’s latest venture, Gull struggled to not get choked up.
Gull and Allen Circuit Court Judge Tom Felts announced the creation of the county’s latest problem-solving court, a Veterans Court specifically tailored to the needs of veterans suffering from mental illness, traumatic brain injuries or substance abuse issues.
Statistically, one in five veterans has symptoms of a mental disorder or cognitive impairment, and one in six veterans from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from substance abuse issues, according to court officials.
The program slides seamlessly, or so they hope, into the existing Drug Court program run by Gull – which deals specifically with substance abuse – and the Restoration Court program run by Felts – which handles offenders with a mental health diagnoses.
Those programs help people with offenses linked to mental health and substance abuse avoid prison time in favor of treatment.
The new Veterans Court is one of five such programs operating in eastern Indiana, Veterans Affairs officials said. Two of the courts are in Delaware County and additional courts are in Grant and Madison counties. Another is planned for St. Joseph County.
Around the nation, states and counties are opening similar courts to help returning veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries who find themselves in trouble with the law.
Allen County criminal justice officials have been seeing the need for such a court for a while now, Gull said.
Veterans who come into the problem-solving courts have unique needs, different from the other populations in the two courts.
The veterans in those programs already have asked for their own support groups to help address those concerns, she said.
Rita Wynn, the area’s Veterans Justice Outreach officer, is busy shuttling back and forth between the veterans courts, as well as helping St. Joseph County get its off the ground.
The program will help link the veterans involved with the court to specific programs at VA, as well as other services, she said.
Felts praised the collaboration among the different entities involved in creating the program, especially that between the Superior and Circuit courts.
The new court will not be a physical court, but rather an identifier for those in that program as they are placed in either Restoration or Drug courts, Felts said.
The whole thing wouldn’t happen without Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards, whose office refers defendants to the problem-solving courts, Gull said.
Veterans have a specific set of problems and we can give them our specific expertise, Richards said.
Gull said many working on the project have military backgrounds themselves or close family members who do.
They are really interested in doing more for the area’s veterans, she said.