Special courts for vets offer treatment

Photo Illustration by Sarah Edwards

Fairfax County becomes first Virginia locality to give some veterans alternatives to prison

By Sarah Edwards

Steven Daniel has a daunting to-do list for the winter months: clear outstanding bills, plan his next culinary career steps and complete the final phase of his court treatment plan.

But the hardest task to check off? Buy Christmas presents for his three granddaughters.

“If I mess around buying things for them, they’ll hate me the rest of their lives,” said Daniel.

This year marks Daniel’s first holiday with the girls. Neither of his two sons had children when Daniel disappeared from their lives 10 years ago. Lost to alcoholism, Daniel said he spent the last decade in and out of jobs, homeless shelters and courtrooms. Worst of all, he said, he cut off contact with his family.

Then, last year, Daniel was arrested and charged with petty larceny and possession of a controlled substance. At the same time, the district court in Fairfax County, Virginia, was preparing to launch a Veterans Treatment Docket, a special court for veterans involved in the criminal justice system. Daniel, a 57-year-old veteran who served three years in the U.S. Army and eight years in the National Guard, signed up to be a “guinea pig” in the program, he said.  

Involvement in the docket over the last 10 months has “changed a lot of things,” Daniel said, especially his relationships with family.

Daniel is back in their lives again.

Fairfax County joins national movement

Daniel is one of five veterans participating in the Fairfax County Veterans Treatment Docket — the first in Virginia — that diverts veterans from the traditional legal system who struggle with substance abuse, mental illness or trauma.

Instead, those in the program work with a team—a public defender, commonwealth attorney, judge, parole officer and volunteer veteran mentor, among others—who help veterans address the root causes of their behavior with holistic treatment.

“We put together a team that would learn to work collaboratively rather than in the adversarial way that you normally see in the courthouse,” said Don Northcutt, mentor coordinator with the Fairfax County Veterans Treatment Docket.

Nearly one in five veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan alone suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and the same percentage report experiencing a traumatic brain injury while on duty, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The administration also concluded that 50 percent of veterans who qualify for treatment seek help, and only half of those who receive treatment can access high-quality care.  

This often lands veterans behind bars, on probation or trapped in a cycle of re-offending that limits access to opportunities like employment, education and public benefits. But just how many veterans are involved in the criminal justice system is unknown. The most recent national survey was conducted by the Department of Justice more than a decade ago in 2004—one year after the United States deployed troops to Iraq.       

“It’s not that veterans need a break or that [this docket] is something special for them. It’s about recognizing that behavior is caused by traumatic events that happen during military service, and addressing treatment needs there,” said Northcutt, who served in the Air Force from 1967 to 1973.

Fairfax County’s first Veterans Treatment Docket hearing took place in February after then-District Court Judge Penney Azcarate, a Marine Corps veteran, heard of the program’s success in other local jurisdictions. The model is based on drug courts, which serve to help people who are arrested on drug charges with their addictions, rather than impose jail sentences. It was first applied to veterans’ cases in Buffalo, New York, in 2008 by Judge Robert Russell. While presiding over drug and mental health courts, Russell observed a number of veterans pass through his courtroom; one Vietnam veteran in particular refused to cooperate with Russell’s requests.

“The judge had a lot of trouble reaching him. He was non-responsive, low affect, kept his head down low,” said Chris Deutsch, director of communications for Justice for Vets, a nonprofit organization that leads training and advocacy for Veterans Treatment Courts.

As the story goes according to Deutsch, in a moment of exasperation, the judge asked a court staffer, also a Vietnam veteran, to try and talk to the client in the hallway, said Deutsch. One hour later, he returned to the courtroom and stood before the bench at parade rest, head raised.

The judge asked the veteran if he would accept their help, and he agreed, said Deutsch.

And so began Veterans Treatment Court.

“The camaraderie that exists among veterans can be therapeutic. Perhaps the courts weren’t doing enough to serve veterans and the very specific and unique issues they’re dealing with,” said Deutsch.

State and local governments cover the bulk of funding for the courts; federal grants and nonprofit fundraising fill the difference, said Deutsch. Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice allocated $5 million to Veterans Treatment Courts—in 2016, stakeholders are hoping for an increase to $15 million in federal grants. These partnerships between federal and local governments and community-based organizations are evolving into a “one-stop shop” for veteran services and benefits, Deutsch said.

“[Veterans Treatment Courts] pull resources together so the vets who really need them most have access. That collaboration becomes very powerful,” said Deutsch.

Vets step up to serve each other

Without “any real national structure to do so,” more than 200 Veterans Treatment Courts have formed in local jurisdictions across the country, said Northcutt.

Every court is tailored to its own state laws and community needs, but all adhere to a central rule: veterans are only eligible if they have a treatable condition contributing to their destructive behavior—conditions like substance abuse and mental illness. Courts are generally limited to misdemeanor, drug and non-violent felony cases, though advocates in some areas are working to expand the scope of eligible charges.

What makes Veterans Treatment Courts unique among other courts is a mentorship component, in which court-involved veterans are paired with a volunteer veteran mentor for the duration of the program.

Volunteer veteran mentors for the Fairfax County Veterans Treatment Docket gather for a photo. The group is growing, with nearly 27 mentors now in the program. Photo Credit: Fairfax Veteran Mentors

Volunteer veteran mentors for the Fairfax County Veterans Treatment Docket gather for a photo. The group is growing, with nearly 27 mentors now in the program. Photo Credit: Fairfax Veteran Mentors

“A mentor is someone who can be there to listen, to keep the finger on the pulse of the veteran,” said Northcutt. “[They’re] not therapists. Not social workers. But people who are there to support and encourage and listen.”

Daniel and his mentor, a Vietnam veteran, talk two or three times a week. Sometimes he takes Daniel out for lunch to “get an insight on what’s going on;” other times they talk shop about Daniel’s education or benefits applications.

“He’s not like the in-between person. He’s the person that if I need someone to talk to, he’s there for me,” said Daniel.

When his mentor learned that Daniel had to visit the South County Center, a county-run resource and social services building, to access a computer, he gave Daniel the spare one he had at home. He also helped Daniel with his resume.

“In a nutshell, that’s it. Veterans who are willing to support fellow veterans,” Northcutt said.

Homecoming

Part of Daniel’s court “homework” is to write in a journal about where he wants to go after the program ends.

And does he have plans.

Daniel served as a chef in the military, and he hopes to continue cooking—a passion since he was 15 years old. Daniel wants to open his own soul food restaurant in Alabama, his home state. Or maybe a food truck (or three)—the kind of trucks that serve breakfast and on-the-job snacks to construction workers.

If Daniel stays on track with his treatment plan, his case should wrap up this winter, or in the early part of next year. For the first time in a long time, Daniel said, his goals are within reach.

“Now that I’m doing the docket program, it’s showing me that I was wasting my life away. Not caring about anyone. Not caring about my family. I was just surviving,” he said.

Back in the family circle, Daniel is proud of his two sons’ success—both of whom work for the federal government. And he is pleased with Christmas gift choices he made in early November for his granddaughters, with his former wife’s assistance: two sets of outfits for each granddaughter, plus a few toys.

“Everybody is doing pretty good. Now it’s my turn,” he said.