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A disproportionate number of U.S. Military Veterans find themselves embroiled in the U.S. justice system after returning from combat. Veterans Treatment Courts, first established in 2007 in Buffalo, NY, are addressing the unique needs of veterans who have become involved in the justice system as a result of disability or addiction issues stemming from their service. Today, more than 130 documented Veterans Treatment Courts operate throughout the U.S.

Genesee County Veterans Treatment Court: A living memorial

Staff with the Genesee County Probate Court in Michigan know too well the price some veterans pay for their service. When a staffer lost her son, Sergeant Dwayne “Wayne” Cherry, as a result of PTSD-related complications after he served three tours in Afghanistan, the Honorable Jennie Barkey and members of the Flint judicial community wanted to do something positive to honor his memory. The result: The Genesee County Veterans Treatment Court, now dedicated in Cherry’s memory, was launched in January of 2013.

As the presiding judge in the county’s mental health court, Judge Barkey understood the specialty court model and its ability to help justice-involved individuals who struggle with substance abuse or mental illness. She wanted to bring that same proven approach into a court that could meet the unique needs of veterans.

Addiction a dark legacy of service for some veterans

The statistics for veterans and substance abuse are staggering. Nearly 30% of military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan met the criteria for alcohol abuse. Between 60% and 80% of Vietnam veterans seeking PTSD treatment have alcohol use problems. And 81% of all justice-involved veterans had a substance abuse problem before going to jail.

According to Court Administrator James Bauer, drug and alcohol abuse are a significant part of what brings veterans into the Genesee County Veterans Treatment Court. The most common offenses the court addresses are drug-related offenses like possession, drunk driving, and domestic violence. The court’s goal is to help those who enter the program to break the stranglehold of addiction, get their lives back on track, and avoid reentering the justice system.

Participants include individuals who served in Vietnam along with those who have recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Judge Barkey and court personnel evaluate the needs of each veteran who enters the program, and the court works closely with the local VA’s Judicial Outreach Coordinators, who screen participants for substance abuse issues and connect them to treatment and other services.

Alcohol monitoring technology provides a helping hand

All veterans in the program are required to stay drug and alcohol free, and in February 2014 the court received a grant for SCRAM Continuous Alcohol Monitoring technology to help alcohol-dependent participants get and stay sober. “The alcohol monitoring has been a big help for some of our Vets,” notes Bauer. “It is a good guideline for them—it keeps them in line. One client said he’s never had a period of sobriety this long since he was 17.”

The year-long court program isn’t easy, but participants are rewarded with a second chance and the tools they need to move forward with their lives. “They may stumble, but they get chances,” says Bauer. “We treat every participant as an individual.”

To date 27 veterans have entered the Genesee County Veterans Treatment Court and 6 have graduated. In fact, one of the court’s first graduates has returned—this time as a mentor for others going through the program. The court is looking forward to graduating 2 more participants in November 2014.

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Alison Betts

Alison Betts

Alison Betts has over 15 years of experience as a communications professional and researcher in corporate, nonprofit, and high education settings. Betts joined AMS in 2013 and is currently a Senior Manager of Marketing & Public Relations. Prior to coming to AMS, she held research and teaching positions at universities in Arizona and Colorado. Betts has also served as a public relations professional and grant writer in the nonprofit sector, where she saw first-hand the devastating impact of alcohol and substance abuse on families and communities. Betts holds an MA in English from the University of Colorado and a Master’s in Applied Communications from the University of Denver.

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