Fayette court program allows veterans to get physical, psychological help instead of jail time

jwarren@herald-leader.comJanuary 1, 2014 

Judge John Schrader of the Fayette Veterans Treatment Court said the recently launched program's approach is "very holistic."

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Lexington veterans who run afoul of the law as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder, drug abuse or other issues stemming from their military service are getting a new chance under a recently launched court program.

The Fayette Veterans Treatment Court, which opened in early October, helps veterans get support and treatment for their physical and psychological problems as an alternative to simply sending them to jail.

Veterans who elect to go through the court — and can qualify — may have their sentences deferred while they enter an 18-month, court-supervised program of treatment and counseling.

The hope is that those who stick it out through the 11/2-year regimen will "graduate," ready to resume normal lives, free of the demons that haunted them.

Ultimately, charges against them may be dismissed if court officials agree.

No one has finished the program yet, however, because the court has just begun.

But getting through the regimen won't be easy.

Participants, who enter the program voluntarily, are required to:

■ Commit to regular — sometimes daily — drug and alcohol screenings.

■ Have a curfew.

■ Report regularly to Fayette County Drug Court.

■ Attend counseling sessions and/or meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.

■ Find jobs.

Along the way, veterans also may receive therapeutic assistance, mental health treatment, counseling for domestic violence issues, housing assistance if needed, job training and placement, and other types of support.

Finally, each participant is assigned to another veteran who acts as a mentor and general cheerleader to help with the rough spots.

"It's a very holistic approach," said Fayette Family Court Judge John Schrader, who serves as judge of Fayette Veterans Treatment Court, in addition to his regular duties.

"We know these veterans are not going to have their problems corrected if they simply spend time in jail," he said. "So, we want to do all we can to stabilize them and put them back into the community in a safe and appropriate way."

Fayette County Judge-Executive Jon Larson said he had been pushing for a veterans treatment court here for about three years. Larson is a veteran and has represented veterans as a defense lawyer. There's a strong need, he said.

"Military service traditionally has been a way for people to get out and see the world and do something," Larson said. "It changed a lot of people for the better, but a few people have been changed for the worse.

"We should do something better for these veterans because they deserve better than what they got."

The new Fayette County court is patterned after the nation's first veterans treatment court, created in 2008 by a judge in Buffalo, N.Y.

Nationwide, nearly 260 of the specialized courts have been launched during the past five years. Now Kentucky is getting on board.

Jefferson County started the state's first veterans treatment court in 2012. The Fayette County court is Kentucky's second. Others are gearing up in Hardin County, Christian County and Northern Kentucky, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

The Fayette County court has three veterans in treatment, the latest added in early December.

They're all men, but female veterans may be accepted, too, officials say. The number of participants is expected to grow because of the many veterans who return from Afghanistan or other trouble spots with lingering emotional and physical problems.

Finding help

Fayette County plans to apply for a federal grant next year to support the new court.

About 340,000 veterans live in Kentucky, including roughly 89,000 in and around Central Kentucky, according to Veterans Affairs officials.

Estimates vary, but officials at the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs say that as many as 10 percent of veterans struggle with issues from their service. Those can include post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse or simply an inability to readjust to civilian life.

Schrader described the typical veterans' court participant as someone who has developed a substance abuse problem as a result of post-traumatic stress, has written a batch of bad checks, or perhaps has broken into a neighbor's home looking for pills or cash to buy drugs.

Such offenses normally would mean significant jail time or fines. But Veterans Treatment Court offers another way — if the veteran is willing to go along with the program and can qualify, Schrader said.

To be admitted to the program, veterans must have an honorable or general discharge, although that could change later. Veterans who commit violent felonies are excluded, as are sex offenders and heroin traffickers, Schrader said.

Even some veterans who qualify decline to participate, according to Schrader.

"It's a rigorous program," he said. "In fact, we've already had one individual who decided he'd rather serve his year in jail than to go into the program."

Fayette Veterans Treatment Court is built around a "team" of about 10 people. They include the judge, Schrader; and representatives from the Fayette County Attorney's office, the U.S. Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Lexington, the Fayette County Sheriff's Department, the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy and the Fayette County Drug Court.

The team reviews cases, decides which veterans to accept and supervises their treatment. Many of the court's services are provided through the Lexington VA Medical Center.

According to Schrader, cases may be referred to the veterans court from district or circuit court. If the veteran passes an initial assessment and agrees to participate, the trial judge moves the case to treatment court.

There, the veteran begins an initial, eight-week phase of treatment with tight restrictions, including drug screenings, a curfew and periodic monitoring by police, according to Schrader.

Over time, restrictions are relaxed, and the veterans get more freedom. But they stay in touch with their veteran mentors, whom Schrader calls "Battle Buddies."

Wayne Martin, 63, a veteran-mentor with the Jefferson County Veterans Court, says it's demanding but rewarding work. Martin, a Vietnam veteran, struggled with drug and alcohol abuse himself.

"I'm not a mental health counselor or anything like that," he said. "But I've been through the same things they have. I tell them my own experiences and give them somebody to talk to."

Martin said helping other veterans makes him feel good, and helps him stay sober.

Kathy Vasquez, veterans justice outreach specialist with the Lexington VA Medical Center, is a member of the Fayette Veterans Treatment Court team.

"What's unique about the court is that we are there weekly, checking on the participants," she said. "Are they coming for treatment? What do their drug screens show? Are there housing issues?

"We can look at a full range of services to help the veterans be successful."

Schrader said he was excited about the new court, which could reach veterans who might not seek treatment on their own if they didn't run into trouble with the law.

"That's why we have this court system, so that they can get the help they need," Schrader said. "I did not serve in the military myself, so this is my opportunity to make a difference."

Jim Warren (859) 231-3255.

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