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Veterans court sessions — which will be held weekly in Cleveland, although courts with lighter case loads like Youngstown and Mansfield meet bi-weekly — consist of each offender coming before the judge in the courtroom to report on his progress and talk about additional support he may need. Once he has successfully completed his treatment program and probation, and paid any fines and costs, he "graduates" from the program. The record of his offense follows him, however.
Before meeting with veterans, Mansfield's Judge Ault gathers in an adjoining conference room with his team: a group made up of a "justice outreach coordinator" from the Veterans Administration, a representative from the local Veterans Service Commission, a drug counselor, three representatives from the volunteer service group AMVets (which serves honorably discharged veterans), and an ever-growing number of observers from neighboring counties and Cleveland, among others.
Ault's right-hand man is probation officer Fred Brubach, a tall man with a folksy drawl whose bald pate is the subject of friendly kidding. He could talk about the veterans court program all day if you'd let him.
Brubach himself isn't a veteran, but his father was in World War II and his brother served in Vietnam. He worked in probation in the 1990s, before running Mansfield's parks department. "I always wanted to come back to probation," says Brubach, who will be 62 in January. "That's where I wanted to end my career."
Brubach has a pile of files in front of him, one on each of the veterans they'll be seeing. The team reviews how each one is doing, what services he's accessed, what appointments he's made — and which ones he's kept.
About half are unemployed, and some are homeless. Brubach says those he sees coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are usually ravaged by the drugs they lean on to numb the pain of reentry. Murray sees the same patterns among the veterans who clog her regular docket in Cleveland.
"We have so many vets who come in, they don't even know they have benefits," Brubach says. "For some of them, it's almost a blessing they got in trouble."
Josh, the young veteran who was so evasive about AA meetings, doesn't believe in God, it turns out, and is turned off by the religious slant of AA. So they discuss strategies to work around this, to get at what Josh does believe in. He suffers from severe post-traumatic stress and mood swings, and he's on a methadone treatment program — Brubach even drives him there on occasion. He's a smart kid, the probation officer insists.
"I've got one young man that was in the first wave going into Iraq. I remember watching on CNN tanks going in there. He was on one of those tanks. I'm sure he has nightmares about that. He's got substance-abuse problems. I've got a special place in my heart for him. I love what I do, and I want to make sure we give them the best we can. Sometimes it's not going to work. I understand that. But when you help someone, it gives you a good feeling."
Conventional courts face two key problems when dealing with veterans: connecting them with available services and connecting service providers with each other. The teams that make up a veteran courts are intended to do both.
"I wanted to get everybody talking to each other about what services were out there," says Justice Stratton. "The feds don't talk to the state; the state doesn't talk to the nonprofits. They all do housing, but they don't coordinate. My goal is to network these groups. Bring them together and now they can connect, knowing all these things exist."
Judge Murray's team in Cleveland resembles the one in Mansfield, incorporating the Cuyahoga County Veterans Service Commission, the VA, and a treatment coordinator, among others.
The goal is for the judge to have fingertip access to any help the veteran before her might need. And unlike the other specialized dockets, where a judge might have to scramble to find help for a drug abuser or schizophrenic in a time of budget cuts to social services, there is a wealth of services for veterans. Substance-abuse programs that are closed to civilians have spots at the ready for veterans; if underlying health problems come into play, the VA steps in to help.
"Veterans have so many services," says Tracy Walker-Askew, Murray's VA representative. Her task is to determine what services each vet is eligible for, and she finds that most have no idea on their own. "When I was applying for this job, they said, 'You'll be so pleasantly surprised working somewhere where you can actually do something.'"