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Rotary Happenings: Veterans Treatment Court addresses unique needs of vets

By Staff | Jun 1, 2016

Rodger Thiftshauser, Judge Andrew Swett, Belinda Smith and Earl Givens. PHOTO PROVIDED

Newspapers, media outlets and politicians these days are talking about drug abuse, mental health issues, a veteran’s health crisis, and the current increase in crime throughout our nation, but little is being done about any of this. So the fact is, these problems land in the lap of our Judicial System. To get some insight into this matter Sanibel-Captiva Rotary invited 20th Judicial Circuit Veterans Court Judge, Andrew Swett; Administrative Services Coordinator 20th Judicial Circuit, Belinda Smith; and Lee County Veterans Mentor Coordinator, Earl Given to our May 20 meeting enlightening us of a fairly new approach within our court system that addresses these issues when our country’s military veterans are involved – Veterans Treatment Court (VTC).

“What is Veterans Court? This program represents an effort to identify and address the unique needs of veterans living with a mental illness, substance abuse issues, physical and mental trauma, or a number of other serious issues who have had an infraction of the law resulting in arrest. The first Veterans Treatment Court started in 2008 in Buffalo, NY. Today there are 220 operational VTCs in the U.S. serving 11,000 veterans. The program was brought to Lee County two years ago and took a year of training before activation a year ago in the 20th Judicial Circuit.

How does this work? An arrest is made for any number of reasons and the arrested is identified as a veteran. There then is a screenings process to identify the need of each veteran by the court and eligibility for this program. This is done within 24 hours. Always aware of public safety, these veterans cannot be noted career criminals, but in need of health or mental health treatment that has contributed to their incarceration. The veterans are then brought before VTC Judge Swett and strongly encouraged to voluntarily take advantage of this program in place of jail time, but strings are attached, veterans must attend regular court appearances, remain alcohol, substance and non-prescribed medication free, random drug and alcohol screens at own expense, regular psychiatric and or substance abuse monitoring, participation in the Veterans Mentoring program, groups and treatment recommendations must be followed, take medications as prescribed by a physician, follow all recommendations of the intervention plan, and regular contact and home visits with Outreach Specialist.

This involves taking advantage of a number of resources for medical, mental health, substance abuse, alcohol treatments. Help with job retraining, job placement, housing, and family reunification. Bi-weekly court appearances for approximate a year before Judge Swett take place to evaluate the progress of each veteran in the program. Individual veteran’s VTC plan involves a collaborative effort by as many as 13, or more helping agencies within and outside of community government agencies all setup and monitored by Administrative Services Coordinated, Belinda. Completion of individual VTC program plans can take over a year to complete. The first veteran completing the VTC program graduated this past week. Successful completion of the intervention plan, the pending case will be dismissed by the State Attorney’s office. Probation may be terminated, or continued on regular supervision. Let’s break the cycle of incarceration.

Another component toward the success of the VTC program is a volunteer mentoring system run by mentor coordinator, Earl Givens. Mentors in this program must be Military Veterans themselves. They have walked the walk. They know the glory and pitfalls of service to our country. They know that returning to civilian life is not easy and many veterans have trouble doing so. Mentors aim to offer optional support, guidance and friendship as a fellow veteran. They can provide encouragement, understanding, couching, provide support, be an advocate in court or in dealing with a helping agency; they understand the problems these vets are having.

Earl needs more volunteer mentors for this program. These men and women have given much to our country and now they need help themselves. Earl passionately spoke about “Standing on the Wall with Them” referring to a line in the movie “A Few Good Men” the line by Lt. Cdr. Galloway played by Demi Moore, when asked “Why do you like them?” Her answer, “Because they stand on the wall, they say nothing is going to hurt you tonight, not on my watch.” Come “Stand on the Wall” with these veterans. For more information on becoming a Veterans Treatment Court mentor contact Earl Givens at earlgi1948@hotmail.com.

Sanibel-Captiva Rotary meets at 7 a.m. on Friday mornings at the Dunes Golf & Tennis Club, Sanibel. Guests are welcome.