The embattled Department of Veterans Affairs is helping to bring Mobile County’s version of veterans’ court to fruition this summer.
While a clinic in Mobile is under VA review for appointment wait times, the department is also putting forward resources to help District Judges Jay York and Joe Basenberg, as well as drug court Judge Ed Blount develop a new court to handle the legal troubles of qualifying veterans.
The veterans’ court would be similar to the county’s drug court, in that it would be a treatment court, said Sam Baughn, drug court coordinator. He said the pre-adjudication program would put the charges of any qualifying veteran on hold and would allow the defendant to complete a treatment program for either substance abuse, or mental health issues, like post traumatic stress disorder.
“We would put the charges on hold until they complete the program,” he said. “If they complete the program, they’ll get dismissal papers.”
The court would refer the veteran to either an outpatient clinic in Mobile, or a more intense, in-patient treatment program in Biloxi, Miss., said Kathy Monson, a Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist.
“One of the biggest issues we address is post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Monson, a certified social worker who was part of the initial meetings about the Mobile County court.
Monson said there would be a screening process for veterans wishing to use veterans’ court as an option.
“Just because someone is a veteran doesn’t mean they’re right for veterans’ court,” Monson said. “Not every veteran is in need of treatment.”
The screening process will start with the new specialist for Mobile and Baldwin counties, Dave Nelsen, who will do an assessment of treatment need to determine if the veteran needs mental health or substance abuse treatment. Monson said sometimes both problems occur.
Monson said substance abuse can occur when veterans try to self-medicate to deal with stress, anxiety and nightmares associated with PTSD. In turn, substance abuse can lead to legal trouble like domestic violence or battery charges.
“Sometimes there is more of an instance of domestic violence once someone comes back from war and suffers from PTSD.”
The need for treatment in the area has increased, Barnett said. Last year, 1,950 veterans in the Mobile area reported suffering from PTSD. Barnett said it represents a 49 percent increase from 2006, when the number was just over 1,300.
The screening process would also look at a veteran’s criminal history, Baughn said, and like drug court, veterans would not qualify for the program if a serious felony is committed.
“The DA’s office will be involved at looking into the nature of the offense,” Baughn said. “A repeat offender, or a violent offender might not be let into the program.”
Blount said organizers are still “working out the parameters of what cases we’re going to take.” He said Class A felonies, like sex crimes, homicides and assaults would be off the table.
Baughn said drug court has seen an increase in veterans going through the program in the last year or year and a half. Many of the veterans in the program are suffering from substance abuse issues related to military service. In one case, a graduate of the program was initially suffering from severe PTSD as the result of a head injury. Before the program, Baughn said, he was prone to violence and heavy alcohol use. The veteran went through a 90-day program in Biloxi.
In another case, a veteran was having trouble sleeping and experienced anger management problems, Baughn said.
Baughn said it’s still unknown how many cases the court will see when it becomes available to veterans.
“I don’t know what we’ll see as far as numbers,” Baughn said. “We’ve suggested 30 per year.”
Meanwhile, the VA clinic in Mobile was one of four in the Gulf Coast region flagged for further review as a result of wait times for appointments, according to Derron Barnett, a spokesman for the Gulf Coast Veteran’s Healthcare System who last week was “waiting to find out what the specifics are.”
As a result of waitlist concerns, hospitals and clinics within the Gulf region began to partner with local medical facilities to move veterans through the system faster, Barnett said. In addition, the local clinics have addressed other problems a VA audit discovered.
“The audit teams told us things we could fix and we did,” he said. “No veterans should have to wait on coverage they deserve and we’re working to fixing that.”
The court is set to launch in July or August, Monson said. A similar program in Baldwin County started in February.
“It’s growing quickly,” Monson said. “From my perspective, it’s going well.”
Courts on both sides of the bay are part of a larger movement nationwide, Barnett said, with more than 300 similar courts throughout the country.
“Veterans’ courts are successful,” Blount said. “They’re all over the country. It’s a big deal and everybody’s signing on.”