The Van Wert County Courthouse

Saturday, Jun. 12, 2021

Muni Court creates program for veterans

DAVE MOSIER/independent editor

Van Wert Municipal Court’s veterans treatment court program is an attempt to help military vets overcome the mental health and substance abuse challenges that can lead to involvement in the criminal justice system.

Van Wert Municipal Court Judge Jill Worthington with staff and participants in the CAMO veterans treatment court program. photo provided

Military service has both positives and negatives for those who serve. Most veterans return home stronger because of their military service. According to the Justice for Vets website, military veterans are more likely to volunteer their time, more likely to donate to charity, and are more likely to vote. In addition, veterans are often leaders in their communities.

Also, contrary to popular belief (and their portrayal in movies and television), veterans are less likely to be incarcerated than non-veterans. Unfortunately, many veterans who become involved in the justice system do so because of treatable conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

However, some veteran statistics are not so positive: 1 in 5 veterans have symptoms of a mental health disorder or cognitive impairment; 1 in 6 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from a substance abuse disorder; half of veterans with PTSD do not receive treatment; and approximately 181,000 veterans are incarcerated in American jails or prisons.

A growing number of veterans suffer from substance abuse-related issues and mental health conditions, such as PTSD, and other issues, such as traumatic brain injury (TBI). Service-related mental health issues are also linked to veterans’ substance abuse.

Approximately 81 percent of veterans in the criminal justice system had a substance abuse disorder prior to incarceration, while a quarter of them were diagnosed with mental health disorders.

These troubling veteran-related statistics have led to the creation of the first veterans treatment court in 2008. The local Municipal Court program is one of more than 300 such programs now operating in the country.

Veterans involved in such programs often show significant improvement with depression, PTSD, and substance abuse issues, as well as other service-related social issues, such as housing, emotional health, relationships, and physical well-being.

One statistic is particularly positive: 89.5 percent of veterans with PTSD who participated in veterans treatment courts remained arrest-free while in the program. Mentoring from fellow veterans was also shown to be very effective.

Municipal Court Judge Jill Worthington said a visit by Ohio Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy several years ago planted the initial seeds for the local veterans court program. Justice Kennedy, who began her law-related career as a Hamilton police officer, is a big proponent of veteran treatment programs, the judge added.

Judge Worthington and other local Municipal Court staff later visited Toledo Municipal Court to obtain information on its veterans treatment court program. The judge also appointed an advisory board for what would become the local Courts Assisting Military Offenders (CAMO) veterans court treatment program.

The board consists of Judge Worthington as chair, County Sheriff Thomas Riggenbach, Van Wert Police Lieutenant Rob Black, City Law Director John Hatcher, County Veterans Service Commission representative Paul Wilson, Municipal Court Probation Officer John Wiley, Court Peer Mentor Coordinator Mike Kennedy, CAMO Program Coordinator Carli Boroff, Westwood Behavioral Health Center Executive Director Mark Spieles, VA Liaison Dawn Kennedy, Veterans Justice Outreach Coordinator Rita Wynn from the VA’s Northern Indiana Health Care System in Fort Wayne, and County Public Defenders’ Office representative Greg Unterbrink.

After their appointment advisory board members reviewed paperwork related to certification of the program and court officials later submitted the documentation to the Supreme Court of Ohio in September 2020. Initial certification was received in December of last year, but the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic put the in-person portion of the program on hold at that point, although some of the treatment elements began after the court received its initial certification in December 2020.

The first in-court CAMO session was held March 3 of this year, but Judge Worthington then put the court sessions on hold to allow for intensive staff training in mid-March. After training, organizers worked to more clearly identify those who should be in the program, while better defining its parameters.

“We wanted a better tailored treatment plan for them in place, in terms of what needs they had and how to satisfy those needs,” Judge Worthington said, adding that, as a detail-oriented person, she was not comfortable with what she initially thought was a program that was too vague and unfocused.

Wiley said the March training allowed program organizers to see what they had that worked and what they needed to change. Mike Kennedy also noted that training, which included interaction with personnel from other court programs, also helped CAMO staff tailor the local program and make it better for Van Wert County.

Final certification should come in July, Wiley said, after completion of a process that includes an in-person visit from Ohio Supreme Court staff members.

Potential participants in the CAMO program are identified either through a court questionnaire that asks whether an offender ever served in the military, or through referrals from law enforcement officers. Wiley, a military veteran who has been a Municipal Court probation officer for nearly nine years, then checks the offender’s Form DD214, the document all discharged military veterans receive, to determine whether a veteran qualifies for the program.

Wiley said only veterans who receive an honorable, general, or less then honorable discharge automatically qualify, while those with other types of military discharges, such as dishonorable, are judged on a case-by-case basis.

Attorney Dawn Kennedy is given the paperwork of those veterans who don’t automatically qualify, and she works with the VA to potentially get discharges upgraded so those veterans can participate.

After all the research is done, Judge Worthington then makes the final determination on who will be placed in the program.

Once a veteran is approved, Peer Mentor Coordinator Mike Kennedy provides the veteran with a peer mentor — a trained service veteran who works with the offender on a weekly basis. Kennedy, a military veteran who was a peer mentor for a veterans court program in Georgia before coming back to Van Wert in 2017, also helps train local peer mentors. Mentors who participate commit to serve for a year.

“The mentor is really a guide, a coach, a friend, a buddy,” Kennedy said. “Who better to share experiences with than another veteran, someone who has been there, who has gone through a lot of things you have?”

Mentors and mentees talk on the phone or meet in person on a weekly basis, while Brewed Expressions donated coffee for mentors and mentees who meet there for chats.

Since it is a treatment program, Kennedy said, participants must submit to random drug and alcohol screens, must attend various treatment classes through the VA (many online), as well as treatment at Westwood Behavioral Health Center for those who don’t qualify for VA treatment.

The program is multi-phase, with two categories — high risk-high need and high risk-low need — and four treatment phases in each category. Phase 1 is the initial level, with Phase 4 for those nearing completion of the program.

Wiley said the veterans treatment court holds in-court sessions the first and third Wednesday of each month. Prior to the court sessions, the CAMO treatment team, which includes Judge Worthington, Wiley, Mike Kennedy, Boroff, Wilson, and VA representative Wynn, meets and discusses each participant’s progress and/or issues. After “The Pledge of Allegiance” and a prayer, Judge Worthington speaks with each participant and that person’s peer mentor individually.

Currently, there are four veterans in the program, with one of those in Phase 2 and the others in Phase 1.

Mike Kennedy said veterans who show improvement want to have a better life and are willing to put forth the effort to attain that. He added, also, that there is a common misconception that offenders are getting off easy because they’re veterans.

“That’s not true,” Kennedy said, noting that participants must complete all facets of the program to graduate, with a number of sanctions available for those who don’t meet program requirements.

Meanwhile, Wiley and Kennedy said there has been marked improvement for those currently in the CAMO program.

“You can see the change in them slowly,” Wiley said, noting that he has seen significant improvement particularly in a veteran who started in the program soon after it began, who he said was a longtime alcoholic and drug abuser.

“The difference between October and now is remarkable,” Wiley said of the veteran, who has a 100-percent service disability because of PTSD and TBI issues. “Just his attitude towards his own rehabilitation and acknowledging what he has done in the past that didn’t help him, the mistakes he’s made, you couldn’t ask for a better participant.”

“It’s very rewarding to see the difference from beginning to end — and even halfway through,” Kennedy said. “It’s just incredible to see the difference in them.”

Wiley said final validation of the program will come with the graduation of the first program participant, adding that several groups and agencies have committed resources and funds to be used for a graduation ceremony.

POSTED: 06/09/21 at 3:28 am. FILED UNDER: News