Veterans Treatment Court Successfully Aiding Veterans in Butler County

By Staff Report

 

The program includes health interventions, case management and peer mentoring.

The Veterans Treatment Court in Butler County is helping veterans not only tap into benefits they may be entitled to, and services they might need, but the court is also restoring the pride and honor of individuals who may have found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Veterans Treatment Courts help veterans who are suffering from the aftermath of substance abuse or mental health issues by offering intervention and treatment through specialized dockets that holistically treat each person. The program includes health interventions, case management and peer mentoring.

According to the AMVETS, Department of Ohio website, (www.ohamvets.org,)the combat and military service experience has left a growing number of veterans with mental health and substance abuse issues.

“One in five veterans has symptoms of a mental health disorder and one in six veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn, and Operation Inherent Resolve suffer from a substance use issue,” AMVETS reports.

Multiple research studies have found a link between substance use and combat-related mental illness. Left untreated, mental health disorders can directly lead to involvement in the criminal justice system, according to AMVETS.

The first Veterans Treatment Court was established in Buffalo, New York in 2008 to address the needs of veterans. The Veterans Treatment Court in Hamilton County with Judge Ethna Cooper was one of the first in Southwest Ohio. A number of counties in Ohio now offer Veterans Treatment Courts or VTC’s. Each court differs in focus and scope but they share the same goal – to keep veterans out of the justice system so they can lead productive lives.

Judge Michael Oster, Jr. Photo credit http://revize.bcohio.us/revize/butlercommonpleas/judges/judge_michaelosterjr.php

In the past few years, Veterans Treatment Courts have greatly expanded in the State of Ohio. Judge Michael Oster, Jr. presides over the court in Butler County.

In addition to his regular docket, Judge Oster presides over the Veterans Treatment Court. This is the first Veterans Court, at the Common Pleas level, in Butler County history. The Veterans Treatment Court is a separate, specialized docket in which Veterans of the United States Armed Forces receive court-supervised treatment as a condition of probation. After breaking felony laws in the county, the goal is to help veterans and restore their honor.

“Really, the purpose is pretty simple. We want to use what we consider, and what we call evidence-based interventions and treatment to come up with an accountability-based and supported system to aid the veterans who have gotten into trouble here in the Common Pleas Court, to try to straighten their lives out, and to try give them back the honor and the respect that they have earned through their service in the United States Armed Forces,” said Judge Oster.

The municipal judges in Hamilton and Middletown have also operated VTC’s for several years. Warren County has also started a VTC, and they recently recognized the first graduating class.

“We are very proud of our neighbors in Warren County, who have been moving this effort forward. I also think a huge credit needs to go to Justice Sharon Kennedy (from the Supreme Court of Ohio). She’s gone around, and touted these courts across the state, and talked about what they can do for our veterans. She’s helped to move the needle quite a bit…Here in Ohio, it’s growing, and it’s growing very quickly, based upon the success that some of the courts have experienced,” Oster said.

The Veterans Treatment Court in Butler County works in collaboration with the Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist, who works through the Veterans Administration (VA,) the Veterans Service Commission, adult probation, the prosecutor’s office and the public defender’s office. They also partner with Easter Seals.

“It’s a community approach as far as who is there, and who is willing to help our veterans. Again, it’s accountability-based, and the reason I say that is this is not a diversion program. The veterans who are in the court have either already plead guilty to committing a crime, and part of their sentence is to successfully complete our court, or it could be as part of a probation violation, or even a judicial release situation, so these are not diversion-based, and there is still accountability, but what we are trying to do is take the person, and get their life turned back around,” said Oster.

There are four specialty dockets in Butler County – The Veterans Treatment Courts run by Judge Oster; Drug Court run by Judge Keith Spaeth; SAMI Court (which stands for Substance Abuse and Mental Illness) run by Judge Noah Powers II and a Felony Non-Support Court run by Judge Jennifer Muench-McElfresh.

“…The difference here is, and part of why Veterans Treatment Courts have been found to be some of the most successful treatment courts is because we engage veterans with their peers. For example, in our court, during docket, all of the veterans sit together in the jury box,” Oster said.

The other thing is we try to utilize the VA as much as possible, so a lot of our groups and the services we provide are through the VA, which is very different from the other courts. We also work through the Veterans Service Commission, he said.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations (cfr.org,), the number of the active military serving today is just under 1.29 million, or 0.5 percent of the United States population. There are four branches of the U.S. military: the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force. With nearly half a million members, the Army is the largest branch of service.

“I think the biggest thing is to try to give back the honor and the sense of pride to our veterans, who were willing to put themselves in harms way to protect all of us. I wouldn’t get to sit on a bench if it wasn’t for them, and them protecting our way of life. So, the big thing to me is that when a veteran leaves my court, they are willing, if asked, to say they’re a veteran,” Oster said.

Often when veterans find themselves in trouble, they won’t respond affirmatively to the question, “Are you a veteran?” even if they are, he said.

“We were finding that under 50 percent of the veterans in jail weren’t reporting it. When they were asked during intake, they would say ‘No,’ because they were in trouble. That should never happen,” Oster said, “There should always be the honor of someone who has served this country to say ‘Yes, I’m a veteran,’ but that’s not what happens when they get in trouble. So, the biggest thing we want to do is give them that sense of pride and help them get their lives back on track.”

It can be difficult for veterans to ask for help. When they are in the military, they are typically given a mission and a purpose, and they are supposed to be problem solvers, who are able to handle challenging situations.

“We want to give them a sense of being able to ask for that so that the veterans in Butler County feel like they have an additional resource,” Oster said.

It’s also important for the community to be aware of the fact that a veteran they know could need help, use a mentor, or wants to gain that sense of pride back.

“I think too often, it’s so easy for us to sit at home, and enjoy our way of life, but it shouldn’t be only on Memorial Day or Veterans Day that we remember that veterans were the ones who stood in harm’s way so that we could have this way of life,” Oster said.

Some of the common issues veterans encounter include unemployment or underemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, and homelessness. Drug possession charges are among the most prevalent – they account for over 50 percent of all the cases.

“The drugs and addiction are huge. Especially, when you look at the opioid crisis. There are so many veterans who have an injury that they potentially sustained during their service. They may become addicted pain killers, or they don’t want to ask for help, so they try to self-medicate. We see drugs and alcohol as well as addiction issues that we have to try to handle. Most of the time, we’re using a medical and a therapeutic-centered approach to try to deal with those issues,” Oster said.

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Veterans also struggle with reliable housing or living in housing that is away from the addiction. If a veteran lives in a neighborhood where others are using drugs, part of the issue is getting them out of that situation. Transportation is another major concern. Some veterans face challenges living day-to-day. They could be living in homes without electricity, or without a couch.

“It really runs the gamut of all sorts of things. One of the big things we focus on are jobs. Some of our partners like our partners at Easter Seals are very good at trying to help us with those types of issues,” Oster said.

Part of the process with the program is finding a job, finding a home, and creating a stable life. The Veterans Treatment Courts have produced not only veterans who don’t offend again, but community members whose problems have been solved through all the various services they have received under the court’s supervision.

“We don’t want someone graduating from our program, who, while maybe we’ve gotten them off of drugs and alcohol, but they don’t have a job or a good place to live, so that’s part of it. It’s a holistic approach to make sure all aspects of their lives are back in order,” said Oster.

Additionally, a new mentor program has been approved by The Butler County Veterans Service Commission, and they are in the hiring process to fill a mentor coordinator position. As soon as that position is filled, they will be able to start supplying mentors to Judge Oster’s court as well as to some of the other misdemeanor courts who have this type of program.

One positive trend Judge Oster is seeing is that the program has taken off and people are experiencing great benefits from it. He said the program is not in its infancy stages anymore. It’s starting to grow and it has the support of the legal community in Butler County as well as in the veterans’ communities.

“We are seeing a lot more people who want to be screened for the program, and a lot more attorneys, who are suggesting to their clients that this may be a great thing for them to engage in, and we just had our biggest graduating class ever, which was six people,” he said.

Of those that have graduated from the program, the court hasn’t seen any repeat offenders to date. The success rate of the program is in line with national statistics for Veterans Treatment Courts at about an 80 percent rate. (A few people have decided not to participate in the program.) On average, in Butler County, the court handles 20-25 cases on an annual basis. As a result, the court is bringing families back together and saving lives.

“We are experiencing success. At our graduations, I’ve had mom’s, dad’s and children tell me that they’ve gotten their husband, spouse, brother or dad back. This court has changed people’s lives,” Oster said.

The Butler County Veterans Service Commission, Military Veterans Resource Center, Easter Seals, and the Heroes’ Fund are among those who have contributed to the positive impact the Veterans Treatment Court is having in the community.

Caroline Dineen, executive director, Butler County Veterans Service Commission said they have a service officer, who is on the treatment team for the felony-level court with Judge Oster as well as the City of Middletown’s Veterans Treatment Court and the City of Hamilton’s Veterans Treatment Court.

“They ensure that the veterans seeing the judge are engaged with VA services,  they have them apply for VA healthcare and any other benefits for which they might be eligible,” Dineen said.

The mission of the Butler County Veterans Service Commission is to help veterans and their family members who live in Butler County and to connect them with all of their county, state and federal veteran benefits.

Dineen said they have three primary initiatives – to advocate on the veteran’s behalf to the VA for benefits, to offer a temporary financial assistance program for those veterans and their family members that are current residents of Butler County, and to provide a transportation program for veterans to VA appointments or VA-funded appointments, free of charge.                                                                                                                       “We’re finding that these veterans, who are involved in the criminal justice system have never been connected with any kind of treatment or services or benefits. It’s become a need, more than just something good to have, to get these veterans connected,” Dineen said.

She has seen proof that the Veterans Treatment Courts have been effective. Now, veterans are receiving physical and medical care as well as pharmacy services. Through the VTC, they become engaged with the VA.

“As a veteran myself, and working in this agency, it’s our responsibility to connect them with all the resources and benefits that they are eligible to receive, so they can make their way to a better life,” Dineen said.

While there are more than 24,000 veterans in Butler County as of 2018, only a small percentage are involved in the criminal justice system. Not every veteran deals with PTSD or mental health issues, but there’s a small pocket, who need extra help. The felony-level Veterans Treatment Court lasts about 18 months. It can be a stricter program than traditional probation.

“What I would like the long-term benefit to be is throughout their whole time in the docket, that they are gathering tools from receiving the treatment, and connecting with other veterans in the court system,” Dineen said.

When they finish with treatment court, she hopes veterans can share their experiences, help other veterans, and remain on the path of staying out of the criminal justice system.

“I remember one veteran, specifically. When he came into the Veterans Treatment Court, he did not have a job, and he was homeless. I’m pretty sure he’s done, or he is on the last phase, but he now is working, he has his own place, and he’s using his VA benefits to get some further vocational rehabilitation training, so he can get better employment. He was never connected with any benefits, previously…Getting through (the VTC), and being able to make that change makes it a successful program,” Dineen said.

Since Judge Oster took it and ran with it, it’s been a great addition to the services we provide and the services that the VA provides. It’s important to not let these veterans think that they have been forgotten, she said.

“I think we have to remember them all of the time. Not just on Veterans Day, not just when we see war on the news. There are still troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is just another way to remind veterans that their service matters, and past their service, we want them to be functioning in society,” Dineen said.