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Victories for Veterans

State’s first Veterans’ Court celebrates 5th year, but its future is uncertain

In Harnett County, just a few miles north of Fort Bragg, judicial officials are celebrating the fifth anniversary of the county’s Veterans Treatment Court, North Carolina’s first court designed to help veteran offenders get their lives back on track.

But the court’s grant money will run out in September of next year, and if it can’t find more funds, the gavel will fall on it for good. Advocates, citing the hundreds of veterans the court has helped over the past five years, say would be unacceptable.

Chief District Court Judge Jackie Lee embraces veteran Donald Sacks, who was awarded the Sgt. Nieves “SAL” Ramirez 2018 Compliance Award, the highest award given to a veteran who has completed the Veterans Treatment Court program, on Nov. 7. (Photo courtesy North Carolina Judicial Branch.)

Chief District Court Judge Jackie Lee embraces veteran Donald Sacks, who was awarded the Sgt. Nieves “SAL” Ramirez 2018 Compliance Award, the highest award given to a veteran who has completed the Veterans Treatment Court program, on Nov. 7. (Photo courtesy North Carolina Judicial Branch.)

“For those who have accepted the treatment court in their lives, they are an entirely different person, and you can see that in their demeanor, in their attitude toward life,” said Harnett County Chief District Court Judge Jackie Lee, who presides over the court. “They have a better feeling about themselves. If they have family, they are more engaged with their families. It’s a win-win situation.”

The VTC is an alternative to the state judicial system for veterans who commit misdemeanor and low-level felony crimes. It provides substance abuse treatment, strict monitoring, and therapy, under the motto, “Keeping Free Those Who Kept Us Free.”

The Harnett County VTC first convened in November 2013 with money from the state. That money stopped after two years, but the court was able to secure $1.3 million in grants to operate for the next three years.

Now, Mark Teachey, the director of the court, and others involved in the county VTC are searching for new ways to cover the costs of the administration and the treatment of veterans who appear in the court. The directors other VTCs in North Carolina can relate to what Harnett County is now facing.

“Veterans Treatment Courts are an invaluable resource which all too often don’t receive adequate funding, but plenty of verbal praise, from legislatures,’ said Kevin Rumley, director of the Buncombe County VTC.

That court just received a Department of Justice grant that will start in January and will fund the court for four years. In the meantime, Rumley said that he has had to get creative. He started as director for the court in September 2017, just as a grant from the Governor’s Crime Commission was about to expire. Rumley said he “frantically” scrambled to find the money to keep the court open.

He found a hodgepodge of funding sources, including the local ABC Commission, the county commissioners and N.C. Brookhaven Behavioral Health, a veteran-owned small business that provides behavioral health services to Medicaid patients.

“When I spoke to their CEO, Fred Baker, a Purple Heart Vietnam veteran, about our lack of funding, he stepped up and said he would pay my salary until sustainable funding was achieved,” Rumley said. “After operating for three years successfully with state funding, we were very close to shutting down. It was only because of NC Brookhaven Behavioral Health that we stayed afloat.”

Lee said that the military can be extremely traumatic for many veterans, and there are many veterans who were treated with opioids for pain or were “just given booze to drink after they went and bombed people,” creating issues that manifest when they return from civilian life.

“They have issues that the correctional institutions are not going to fix,” said Heidi Chapman, a Chapel Hill attorney who represents veterans pro bono in Harnett County. “But PTSD is not addressed, nor is the craziness of their lives as they come out of active duty.”

Cameron Stancil can relate. The Johnston County resident who works as a wrestling coach recently completed the Harnett County VTC after he was charged with obtaining property by false pretenses. He said he was facing a minimum of three years in prison when he mentioned to his attorney that he was a veteran, and his attorney sent him directly to the VTC.

Stancill said he suffers from PTSD–the Navy veteran said he watched two of his shipmates commit suicide by jumping overboard–and depression. He said that the VTC changed his life immeasurably through therapy, support, and close monitoring.

“Veterans Court is the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said.

Teachey said that despite the uncertainty of funding, he and others are working hard to keep the court open.

“This Veterans Treatment Court was specifically built for that 1 percent of our population that is willing to step up and be the tips of the spears so we can enjoy our freedom,” he said.

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw

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