County adopts specialty court designed to aid veterans

IMG_0160Kanabec County Times By Jennifer Kotila moraminn.comDec 25, 2019

Veterans who find themselves facing criminal charges as a result of behaviors instigated by combat- or service-related trauma will soon have an opportunity to access specialized services.

The Pine, Isanti, Chisago, and Kanabec (PICK) counties Veteran’s Treatment Court is a trauma-informed program that meets veterans where they are at and surrounds them with a network of people rooting for their success in turning their lives around.

If a veteran is eligible for the program and pleas guilty to the charges, the plea is under a stay of adjudication. As long as they complete the program, the criminal charges are dismissed.

Planning for a PICK counties Veteran’s Treatment Court started 14 months ago, when Isanti County Attorney Jeff Edblad reached out to his counterparts – Kanabec County Attorney Barb McFadden, Pine County Attorney Reese Frederickson and Chisago County Attorney Janet Reiter, initiating discussions on whether or not it made sense to start treatment court in the PICK counties.

“PICK counties are the only part of the 10th Judicial District which do not have a treatment court,” Edblad noted.

Why a Veterans Treatment Court

Isanti County Veterans Service Director Dan Meyer said, of the 3 million Americans who served in Vietnam, 1 to 1.5 million suffered psychological injuries, and half of those psychologically injured veterans later had contact with the criminal justice system. Hundreds of thousands of those veterans are still incarcerated, homeless or addicted more than 40 years after their war.

Although 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam, there are estimates that up to 150,000 veterans have since died by suicide, Meyer said. Half of veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been arrested at least once, with 34% being arrested two or more times and 11.6% being convicted of a felony.

“More than 2.6 million individuals have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a government study reported that more than 500,000 suffer from PTSD; many believe that number will increase,” Meyer said.

Another 500,000 veterans in the recent war suffer traumatic brain injury (TBI), which is being recognized more and more with medical advances. The use of improvised explosive devices and other combat explosions seen in recent warfare increase the rate of TBI in veterans.

“Of those who suffer these invisible injuries, less than half have reported it or sought help for it,” Meyer noted. “People essentially have lives, and receiving treatment is a coordinated effort that’s not seen as a priority right now, as they are just trying to keep their normal life on track.”

Meyer also noted the military currently relies on a small volunteer force being recycled over and over, with many serving two or three combat tours, and some serving up to seven tours. With each additional combat tour, PTSD rates increase.

Trauma and Criminal Behavior

“The fact of the matter is that we see a lot of people self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, turning inward, self-isolating, cutting themselves off from loved ones and support members,” Meyer said.

Alcohol and drugs can lead to reckless, self-destructive, or violent behavior. Some veterans will respond to adverse threatening situations with violence, as they were trained and conditioned to do during combat. Veterans suffering flashbacks, believing they are back in combat, may act out against those around them.

“Combat- and service-related trauma biologically alters the brain and the ability to regulate and process the emotions, so it amplifies the guilt and anger, and minimizes the ability to feel excitement and joy and happiness, resulting in kind of severing some of those ties and significant others in support networks,” Meyer added.

Development of veterans treatment court

“Really, the combination of the stakeholders and department heads across the PICK counties, and then these two champion judges (Heather Wynn of Kanabec County and Bridgid Dowdal of Chisago), is what really initiated these discussions to start this programming,” said Isanti County Court Administrator Tracy Gullerud. “The mission of the PICK Veterans Treatment Court is to promote public safety through enhanced supervision and individual accountability.”

The court will operate out of two locations for all four counties, with Chisago and Pine being hosted in Chisago County. Isanti County will be the host for Isanti and Kanabec counties. Veterans treatment court will take place bi-monthly.

The purpose of the court is to provide a collaborative effort of criminal justice stakeholders working together in a non-adversarial setting to promote public safety and to help veterans involved in the criminal justice system break the cycle of substance abuse, mental illness, and criminal behavior.

Those involved in the planning and implementation of PICK counties Veterans Treatment Court include the Department of Corrections, probation directors, county attorneys, public defenders, sheriffs offices, veterans services, court administration, and veterans service outreach, Gullerud said.

She noted that ultimately, it will be each county attorney who decides if a veteran is a good fit for the program, with input from other stakeholders.

The goal of PICK Veterans Treatment Court is to provide justice-involved veterans with the opportunity to address their addiction and/or mental health issues and to move beyond criminal behavior. It is completely voluntary, with entrance to the program occurring after a plea to criminal behavior, but before sentencing. It is an abstinence-based, intensive program, providing veterans an opportunity to change life circumstances, become alcohol and drug free, and get treatment for mental health issues.

How the court will work

“We know that vets are people, just like the rest of us. They’ve had some trauma in their life, so we want to meet them where they are at assess where they are at, and then start to apply the correct treatment and resources to them,” Isanti County Probation Director Tim McMillan said.

The court will include comprehensive assessment and treatment, intensive supervision, random drug and breath testing, regular court appearances and immediate sanctions and incentives.

Admission to the program is at the discretion of the Veterans Treatment Court team.

There are six phases of the program.

The first phase is acute stabilization lasting up to six days. Each subsequent phase is expected to take 90 days, requiring approximately one-and-one-half years to complete the entire program.

The second phase is clinical stabilization, where the defendant goes through any treatment needed for chemical or mental health issues.

The third phase is pro-social habilitation, where the defendant begins entering the community and accessing resources with the support of different resources.

The fourth phase is adaptive habilitation, where the defendant addresses employment and education. Finally is continuing care.

A veteran will successfully graduate from the Veterans Treatment Court after a minimum of 90 days in the final phase and 90 days sober. They will have successfully completed treatment, complied with supervision, engaged in pro-social activities, established a recovery network, addresses employment and education, articulated a continuing care plan, and paid their supervision fees.

Assisting the stakeholders and veterans through the process will be a veterans court coordinator, who will assist the court in implementing the program, and a veterans justice outreach officer, who works with the veteran and helps align services.

There are also plans to recruit mentors to walk alongside the veteran, adding another layer of support, McMillan noted. It will be similar to the sponsor model through Alcoholics Anonymous.

Although Veterans Treatment Court is currently taking place informally, the program is expected to formally launch sometime in January 2020.

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