Boston Veterans Treatment Court: A Team Dynamic

sinnott_eleanorby Hon. Eleanor C. Sinnott

Voice of the Judiciary 

Our country has been at war for almost 15 years. Deployments take a toll on soldiers and their families. Some get arrested because they suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress or traumatic brain injury and they self-medicate with alcohol and/or drugs. If those defendants are within the Boston Municipal Court Department (BMC) jurisdiction, the Boston Veterans Treatment Court (BVTC) may be an alternative to the regular court trial track.

I served as a Navy Intelligence Officer and had the honor of being attached to Special Operations Command, Korea (SOCKOR). My husband Richard Sinnott, a private attorney practicing in Boston, is a Lieutenant Colonel Judge Advocate in the Army Reserve. He deployed to Kuwait in 2003. My familiarity with military culture both by being a military officer and the spouse of a deployed soldier, and having worked with combat veterans, helps in my interactions with and understanding of veterans as the presiding judge of the BVTC.

Why do I say BVTC “may” be an alternative?

The BVTC focuses on high risk/high needs veterans facing serious charges where there is a nexus between their current problem and their military experience. Individual treatment plans are created for them and each veteran is assigned a mentor. Because the program is usually about

18 months of probation and involves intensive treatment and monitoring, it may not be appropriate for a veteran facing less serious charges.

Probation (which is often pretrial probation), consists of weekly court appearances that taper as the veteran progresses through five phases. Once a treatment plan is established, each week the veteran is tested for drugs and alcohol, must attend three Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings each week, meet weekly with a probation officer and have mentor contact.

How does a veteran get considered for the BVTC?

If a veteran is arraigned in the BMC Central Division, the case is automatically scheduled for the earliest Friday in the BVTC, for assessment of eligibility. If a veteran is arraigned in one of the other BMC divisions, the veteran’s attorney submits a referral and the case is scheduled for a status date in that same division 4 weeks later. During that time, the veteran is told to visit a BVTC session, given the participant handbook, and a clinical evaluation is scheduled to assess whether there is a nexus between their military service and current case and whether the BVTC can provide the appropriate treatment.   (http://www.mass.gov/courts/docs/specialty-courts/veterans-treatment-court-referral-form-boston.pdf)

Because the BVTC session is a voluntary program, the veteran then has the option to opt in or go the normal trial track.

What are the benefits to the veteran?

For most defendants, their cases will resolve by dismissal. Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley supports such resolutions because, in his own words: “Veterans are asked to fight and die in defense of their country.  But many aren’t given the tools to readjust to peacetime lives.  As a result, they’re at a much greater risk of unemployment, substance abuse, and untreated mental illness, which all contribute to increased contact with the criminal justice system.  So with Veterans Court, our goal is to help defendants overcome those challenges rather than be overcome by them.” Dismissals give them a better chance at employment and other opportunities. Most importantly, the veterans receive treatment monitoring and support in areas such as housing, employment, possible upgrades in military discharge status, and legal assistance in civil matters.

Who is on the treatment team and why should I trust that they would know what is best for the veteran?

Most team members have extensive military backgrounds and are committed to the BVTC mission: To provide veterans whose underlying service related challenges brought them into the justice system – with a tailored but flexible supervised treatment program that restores their dignity and pride and returns them to being law abiding, productive members of civilian society.

A unique and essential aspect of veterans courts is peer mentoring, described by Judge Robert Russell of New York, as the “secret sauce” for the success of veterans courts.  Don Purington is the peer specialist/mentor coordinator for the BVTC and oversees mentoring for all five veterans courts in Massachusetts. Although he is the assigned mentor to several BVTC veterans, he is an unofficial mentor to them all.

Mr. Purington’s story is one of redemption. He is a combat veteran who served in the United States Marine Corps from 2005 – 2009 as a fire team leader and squad leader during combat operations in Iraq in 2006. Upon discharge, Mr. Purington was addicted to opiates and began breaking the law to obtain drugs. After detoxing in a jail cell, he was offered the opportunity for treatment and help putting his life back on track. He received inpatient treatment for more than a year and was able to move past his legal issues. A veteran served as a mentor to Mr. Purington, which started him on his path to working with veterans.

Mr. Purington connects with BVTC veterans by sharing his journey, which is a source of strength for them. As he explains: “Some of the most comforting words to someone who is at rock bottom are ‘I understand what you are going through.’ Had I not gotten the mentor that I did and the opportunity to get the help I needed I would be either dead or in jail. It has been 6 years since I started my journey of sobriety and I will continue to use my mistakes to try and help others.” A BVTC veteran described him as “… the most inspirational and biggest positive influence of them all. He is truly like a big brother to me, blood or not. I sincerely love and appreciate this man for everything! … I really hated disappointing him more than anyone.”

The gateway to the BVTC is through probation officer Geri Jurczak (bvtc@jud.state.ma.us). After receiving the one page referral, the eligibility assessment begins.  As part of that process, the veterans are drug and alcohol tested and must abide by the program requirements. Ms. Jurczak conducts home visits and offers referrals to the veterans’ families as needed. A veteran described his experience with Ms. Jurczak like this:

… I have been on probation once before and it made me feel  as if I was being set-up for failure … [Ms. Jurczak] was the complete opposite of what I believed a probation officer to be… She was there for me whenever I had struggles or problems. … She was a huge part of my success and I owe her more than I can give. BVTC is very unorthodox compared to conventional courtrooms because they recognize the need to help veterans returning home from combat. It takes a very special person … to work with combat veterans. … I will forever be grateful for her help in bettering my life.

Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Brett Walker (brett.walker@state.ma.us ) is assigned to the BVTC.  A West Point graduate and a Ranger, who was awarded  two Bronze Stars, ADA Walker has served for 12 years as a light infantry officer in the U.S. Army and the Massachusetts National Guard. An Army Major, he has deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.  He makes a habit of shaking hands with the defendants at each session.

Attorney Vanesa Velez of the Committee on Public Counsel Services (CPCS) regularly represents BVTC veterans (vvelez@publiccounsel.net). While providing zealous advocacy she understands the BVTC treatment approach.

Thomas Palladino, a licensed social worker, is the BVTC Veterans Justice Outreach Coordinator.  He creates the treatment plans and is responsible for the initial assessments and continuing case management. The team meets weekly before the regular Friday session. Because the BVTC is a high risk, high needs court, Mr. Palladino frequently makes last minute changes to treatment plans. He has found immediate placement in detox or residential treatment programs when veterans have been in crisis.

All combat veterans can obtain VA benefits through the Boston Vet Center.  Amy Bonneau, a Captain in the Massachusetts National Guard, who deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan in 2010, is a licensed social worker and works as a readjustment counselor at the Boston Vet Center.

John Quinn is a Veteran Outreach Coordinator for the Home Base Program (http://homebase.org) – a partnership with the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital, which provides eligible veterans with world-class clinical care, fitness, wellness and family counseling. Mr. Quinn proudly served in the 101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army Military Police.

Paul Connor, a Captain in the Army National Guard, assists the BVTC with veterans who suffer a severe relapse.  Early this year, Mr. Connor was asked by Sheriff Peter Koutoujian to implement the first Massachusetts correctional unit for incarcerated veterans or pretrial detainees. The Middlesex County Sheriff’s Housing Unit for Military Veterans (HUMV) allows veterans to share experiences and offers programs tailored to them.

The final team member is Assistant Clerk Magistrate Christopher Phillips, who served in the Marine Corps from 1984 –1997 and is currently a judge advocate major in the Army Reserve.

Judge Eleanor C. Sinott is the presiding judge of the Boston Veterans Treatment Court.

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