Judge Robert Russell, shown with VA Secretary (Ret) Gen. Eric Shinseki
From top level, praise for veterans court; VA chief sees firsthand why Buffalo's is national model
Written by Lou Michel
April 7, 2010, Buffalo, New York (Buffalo News) -
Sitting unobtrusively in Buffalo City Veterans Treatment Court on Tuesday afternoon, he could have been just another court observer. He was anything but.
This particular observer was U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki, a retired Army general and wounded veteran of the Vietnam War. He had come to observe firsthand why the first veterans court in the country is so successful.
"I'm looking for ways I might encourage more opportunities like this," Shinseki said later at a news conference. "Forty courts have started around the country based on this model."
For City Judge Robert T. Russell Jr., who launched the veterans court in January 2008, it was another busy day in a court where veterans are given a second chance to become productive members of society and avoid a criminal record.
"I'm blessed, your honor; it's been 17 months," one veteran said of staying out of trouble with the law. "I'm grateful. I really am."
At the news conference, Russell explained that the success stems from a different mind-set in working with defendants, many of whom have gone astray after returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries or drug and alcohol abuse.
"It's therapeutic problem-solving. There isn't the conflict as in other courts between the prosecutor and defendant," Russell said. "Everyone is on the same page."
With the VA secretary standing just a few feet away, Russell seized the opportunity to thank him and his department for its support.
"I am extremely grateful for the VA. Not only are they treating veterans, but they have a staff person in the court working on veterans' benefits issues that are not an entitlement, but what they have earned," Russell said.
That tone continued with Shinseki, who as a four-star general served as Army chief of staff from June 1999 to June 2003, a period encompassing 9/11 and the early months of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"When my friends ask me why I took this job, I tell them for three reasons — to give back to the kids I sent to war, give back to those who served in Vietnam and give back to the veterans of World War II and the Korean War — those giants," he said.
Shinseki also promised that under his watch, the VA would clear up long delays that veterans encounter in seeking various services.
"Our intent and commitment in 2010 is to break the back of the backlog ... and increase services," he said.
When it was pointed out by the media that this is not the first time a VA secretary has come to Buffalo and vowed to improve processing of veterans' claims, Shinseki said, "We're a large organization, and we're talking about cultural changes. We have begun pilot programs for clearing claims."
He didn't stop at that.
"The bottom line is, it's not working, ... and this year's efforts will change that," he said, promising that he would return to Buffalo and that the conversation on this subject would be different a year from now.
Erie County Director of Veterans Services Patrick W. Welch, who was also wounded in Vietnam, said it meant a great deal that a member of President Obama's Cabinet would take the time to travel here and view the veterans court.
What it shows, Welch said, is "a commitment by this secretary to make meaningful changes."
(extracted from the Veterans for Common Sense website)
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
What other leaders are doing to make the Buffalo, NY Veterans Court a reality in:
- Tulsa, Oklahoma: VETERANS FIGHT FOR AN ALTERNATIVE JUSTICE SYSTEM THAT TAKES THEIR TRAUMA INTO ACCOUNT
"I think that the least that we owe these veterans is to give them another chance," Bennett said. "They volunteered to do this. And we train them and train them to go do the things they did. Then they come back, and we don't really help them when they get back. When Bennett read about a judge in Buffalo, New York, creating a court docket for veterans who wound up in trouble after facing combat, he realized how he could take action. He got to work trying to get a similar court off the ground in Oklahoma..."
- Rochester, NY: THE ROCHESTER VETERANS COURT OPENS FOR BUSINESS "The Rochester Veterans' Court held its first session this afternoon. It's an effort based on the successful Rochester Drug Court, and intended to help veterans who've had a brush with the law stay out of future trouble. McClune says veterans -- particularly those who have been in combat -- will sometimes self-medicate with alcohol or drugs to deal with their experiences. This can lead to job loss, family alienation and arrest for drug or related offenses..."
- Las Vegas, Nevada: SPECIAL COURTS FOR VETERANS
- "It has taken a long time, but fortunately special courts are now beginning to open around the country for military veterans whose troubles with the law are possibly linked to service-related drug, alcohol or mental health issues. McCloskey reported that Buffalo's model has since been adopted in Anchorage, Alaska; Orange County, Calif.; Rochester, N.Y., and Tulsa, Okla. She also reported that 20 other court systems around the country are considering the idea..."
- Pittsburg, Pennsylvania: ALLEGHENY COUNTY PLANS COURT FOR VETERANS "... veterans' court would provide veterans charged with nonviolent crimes a chance to avoid jail time by entering treatment programs under strict supervision. So many returning servicemen and women face mental health and substance abuse problems that it makes sense to bring their cases to a place where their challenges are better understood, officials said. In Buffalo, Judge Robert Russell's Tuesday afternoon court started about a year ago and is set to "graduate" its first class of eight veterans this week, said program manager Hank Pirowsk. The defendants are matched up with volunteer veteran mentors, and there's a representative from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in the courtroom..."
- Phoenix, Arizona: NEW COURT IS SOUGHT TO AID VETS CHARGED WITH CRIMES "Studies have shown that 30 to 40 percent of the 1.6 million troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan will "face serious mental-health injuries" such as PTSD or traumatic brain injury. A lot of what brings veterans into contact with the criminal-justice system is the result of injuries they received while they were serving; their behaviors are so tied to whatever that service-related injury could be," Curran said. "There's a stigma around seeking services, especially when you come from a culture where it's important to be strong. It's less likely for veterans to ask for help. In upstate New York, Erie County residents have come to expect low-level offenders to get diverted to one of Buffalo's specialty courts if the suspects qualify, said Judge Robert Russell, who presides over the veterans court..."
- Madison, Wisconsin: NEW YORK JUDGE URGES SPECIAL COURTS FOR VETERANS "Buffalo's Veterans Treatment Court, the first of its kind in the nation, was formed because "something more needed to be done" to help former service members, the judge said. Russell said he conducts an open dialogue with veterans who appear before him, which is different than the adversarial setting in other criminal courtrooms..."
- Mesa, Arizona: EFFORTS UNDER WAY TO CREATE VETERANS COURT IN THE VALLEY "Several groups are working to create a Veterans Court in Maricopa County. It would handle criminal cases involving all soldiers, but primarily it's designed to address the unique needs of combat veterans with post traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries suffered on the battlefield. These are people who were civilians, signed up to be part-time warriors, if you will, but now they're full-time warriors and part-time civilians... We're trying to get basically ahead of the curve, unlike we did for Vietnam, Korea, World War II..."