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Allen County plans new court for veterans

Thursday, July 4, 2013 - 12:01 am

Allen Superior Judge Frances Gull and Allen Circuit Judge Tom Felts are working together on a new court program for veterans.

Gull said she had been noticing an increase in the number of veterans coming into Drug Court over the past 12 months. She realized that veterans are frequently dealing with underlying issues related to their service, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Self-medication with drugs or alcohol is often a side-effect and the people coming through the system are mainly dealing with drinking-and-driving charges. To meet their specific needs, Gull wanted to tailor the program to help them deal with their specific issues.

Felts runs the Allen Circuit Restoration Court. The court is “a certified problem-solving court, providing judicial oversight, case management, mental health services and possible residential placement in a modified therapeutic community for those offenders who are dually diagnosed with a severe mental illness and a substance-related diagnosis.” Felts said he noticed they were both working individually on designing a veteran's court program and decided to pool their efforts. He, like Gull, had noticed a significant increase in the number of veterans in his court.

Drug Court, operated by the Criminal Division of Allen Superior Court, was started in 1997 and is also a certified problem-solving court to which people with substance addictions are sentenced. Unlike doing hard jail time, offenders are given a chance to get treatment for their substance-abuse problem, group counseling, as well as having a court-appointed case manager to whom they report. Gull said the only thing they ask when an offender is accepted into the program is whether the defendant is willing to admit he or she has a problem and wants to change. The idea is to lower the numbers of repeat offenders through treating the underlying cause of the addiction through counseling.

Gull said that's not to say the court doesn't get some people who are trying to work the system and get out of jail time, but frequently after they have been in the program for awhile they realize they do have a substance abuse problem.

Originally offenders assigned to Drug Court had been arrested on substance-abuse charges, but since Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards has been in office Gull said they have expanded the program to include people who have committed offensives related to their substance abuse behavior, such as prostitution, theft and burglary. These crimes are frequently committed by people seeking money to buy more drugs or alcohol for their addictions, Gull said.

Thanks to a State Court Administration grant, from July 13 to 18 the 10-member drug court team will attend the national drug court conference in Washington. One of the tracks offered is on the treatment of veterans. Gull said they plan to get as much information as possible and use that to help design the program here. Felts said in December he and another staff member will attend a conference in DC specifically on veterans court.

Starting June 1 the US Department of Veterans Affairs Administration has assigned Rita Wynn as a liaison to the Allen County and St. Joseph courts, Felts said, to work as a go-between for services at the VA. Veterans are eligible for one- on-one counseling at no cost. Gull and Felts said they will probably have a special case manager for the veterans who are going through the restoration court and drug courts who will be trained in dealing with veterans, instead of a whole new individual court.

Felts and Gull both said sometimes the trickiest part of getting help for these individuals is identifying that they are veterans and getting them the help they need through the free services at the VA.

Gull said she had a case this year where a Vietnam veteran had drinking issues and in the process of working with him they were able to get a PTSD diagnosis, something that had gone untreated for decades. Felts said he frequently finds veterans who are qualified for VA services but don't think they are because they may have had a medical discharge, or didn't actually serve in combat.

Both judges said they plan to have the program up and running sometime this fall.