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Veterans Initiative Unveiled at Midtown Community Court

By Alan Neuhauser | April 5, 2013 11:11am

MIDTOWN — Manhattan military veterans struggling to navigate city civilian life are getting a helping hand from the Midtown Community Court.

Court social workers and administrators, working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Veterans Justice Outreach program, have started screening and pairing defendants who served in the military with support programs.

The first two participants, who were slated to attend a group-counseling session mandated by the court as part of their sentences for having committed misdemeanor offenses, were scheduled to take part in the court's "Veteran's Initiative" Wednesday.

The community court, located on West 54th Street, sees defendants accused of having committed misdemeanors within a catchment area largely based around Times Square. Those who have disclosed that they've served in the military and agree to plead guilty to their charges can be required to attend a pair of counseling sessions, in addition to paying a fine, performing community service, or another sentence.

"It grows out of a growing trend nationally to design specialty courts for veterans," said Elise White, deputy director for the Midtown Community Court.

"There's a high level of overlap between folks who have come back from some kind of combat and post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse, other kinds of disorders, other kinds of cognitive impairment," she said. "The idea is that the veterans court has a really good working knowledge of these issues and can help connect veterans to the kinds of services that will assist them in reintegrating into civilian life."

The program, while new to the Midtown Community Court, has been implemented in courts from Brooklyn to Houston, Texas, where a veterans court became the focus of a "60 Minutes" segment in October, a VA spokesmen said.

This single-issue court model, White explained, was inspired by "drug courts, community courts, domestic-violence courts, mental-health courts" — justice programs that help prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and court officers develop "a much more nuanced understanding of what the particular issue is and what the best interventions are to decrease court contact in the future."

To gain that understanding for veterans, officials at the Midtown Community Court, including Judge Felicia Mennin, took part in multiple training sessions that discussed everything from military jargon to the effects of traumatic brain injury and military sexual assault, White said. Screeners, for example, learned not to ask whether a defendant was a veteran, but instead inquire whether he or she had served in the military.

"People in the Vietnam era would generally label themselves as veterans, whereas the veterans who return now are not necessarily thinking of themselves as veterans. That might be because their time of deployment was very short, or they did not see direct combat, or any number of things," White said.

Many veterans, she added, aren't even aware of the array of services available to them.

"When they come back, they sit in a room, they're told all the services they're eligible for, and that's right before they're released to their families for the first time," she said. "So they're not in a head space where they really remember what they're being told."

In the weeks and months ahead, as the veterans initiative continues to unfold, Midtown Community Court and VA workers will adjust the program as they learn more about the services most needed by the former troops they see.

"The content is liable to shift based on what we see, because we're not really sure who is going to be in it, what the profile is going to be of the folks who are coming through this group," White said. "We're just getting started."