Dr. Eric Howard, MSW, Executive Director of the Veteran’s Treatment Court. Photo: Renato Rotolo/Urban News

Buncombe County Veteran’s Treatment Court

Dr. Eric Howard, MSW, Executive Director  of the Veteran’s Treatment Court.   Photo: Renato Rotolo/Urban News
Dr. Eric Howard, MSW, Executive Director
of the Veteran’s Treatment Court.
Photo: Renato Rotolo/Urban News

Making Community Partners and Reaching New Milestones

Over the past eight years courts across the nation have begun developing and implementing veterans treatment courts to help our veterans get their lives back on track. The advent of veterans treatment courts came about as a response to a growing number of veterans on court dockets with serious mental-health and substance-abuse issues.

Research has shown that traditional services do not always adequately meet the needs of veterans. Many veterans are entitled to treatment through the Veterans’ Administration, and veterans treatment courts help connect them with those benefits.

In 2014, after measured success with Drug and Sobriety Courts in Buncombe County, principle partnerships were developed to expand diversion courts and continue making a difference in the criminal justice system. That same year, more than 168 veterans came into the Buncombe County jail system. Many of these veterans struggled with issues related to homelessness, Military Sexual Trauma (MST), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and also drug and alcohol addiction.

Assistant District Attorney Jeremy Ingle, of the Buncombe County Veteran’s Treatment Court.  Photo: Renato Rotolo/Urban News
Assistant District Attorney Jeremy Ingle, of the Buncombe County Veteran’s Treatment Court. Photo: Renato Rotolo/Urban News

Later that year, Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Marvin Pope, Assistant District Attorney Jeremy Ingle, and other criminal justice professionals from the district attended the Justice for Vets Conference in Anaheim, California. Ingle explained that he “was inspired by the positive outcomes for veterans and the impact the court had on the communities in which they were established,” said Ingle. “These men and women who have served our country and literally put their lives on the line for our freedom should have our support in whenever way we can help them,” Ingle added.

After the conference, things moved quickly in Buncombe County, and the first Veteran’s Treatment Court in Western North Carolina was created in Asheville.

Judge Pope, Buncombe County Clerk of Court Steve Cogburn, and Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams worked together to secure state funds from the Governor’s Crime Commission. That seed money enabled them to create a position and establish a steering committee. They also formed useful partnerships with the Charles George Veteran Administration Hospital, RHA Behavioral Health, Western Carolina University, and the NC Department of Public Safety Adult Probation office, Buncombe County Veteran Services, Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, and an array of community partners.

Almost one year later, the Veteran’s Treatment Court team hired Dr. Eric Howard, MSW, to further develop the court.

“It became apparent that traditional treatment courts were limited in fully serving the veteran population. Veterans derive from a unique culture, with unique experiences and needs. I also reached out to Buncombe County and the City of Asheville and they delivered,” Dr. Howard commented. He also acknowledged that he had a pretty steep learning curve, but with the help and support of the Veteran’s Treatment Court team and area leadership, the Court has exceeded expectations.

“Research has found that traditional community services may not be suited to address the needs of our veterans adequately. Veterans benefit from services provided by people who “are knowledgeable about and able to empathize with the military experience.” Dr. Howard went on to say, “Our experience is that veterans tended to respond more favorably to ‘veteran-friendly’ knowledgeable people and court settings. So I have added to the team Mr. Rich Schumacher, Mentor Coordinator, who serves as another critical piece to the court’s success.”

The VTC operates on a dual track system for those clients who can be categorized as “High needs/High risk” or “Low needs/Low risk.” Treatment is offered in phases that take 12 to 18 months to complete and require that each client successfully complete each phase before moving to the next.

Among the requirements for low risk clients are: biweekly attendance at the court, following all treatment orders, visits with probation officers and the assigned Court Coordinator, and avoidance of drug and alcohol. Clients must also obtain approved housing and either a job or job training. As the client progresses, he or she must also engage in a “prosocial” component such as community service. The full program can take between seven months and a year to complete.

For those in the higher risk/need category, the requirements are similar, if more stringent, and must be complied with for a longer period of time to ensure success. The full time allotted for success is a minimum of a year and a half.

The VTC has also partnered with Brookhaven Mental Health and its CEO, Fred Baker (an African American Veteran); the Asheville Chapters of The Links, Inc., member Ms. Sharon Pitts; and Upsilon Omicron Chapter of Omega Psi Phi, Fraternity Inc., led by Basileus (President) Bernard Oliphant.

VTC also enjoys the support of the Western North Carolina Chapter of National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI). By partnering with these organizations, explains Howard, “the Court can reach minority veterans and help educate families about the resources that the court has to offer while also expanding our Mentor Corps. The Court has a need for women mentors, but is on a very positive path toward success.

In its first full year of operation, the court is on a positive path. Dr. Howard’s goals include long-term funding for the court, exploring dedicated housing for VTC participants, and expanding the goals for Buncombe County and the City of Asheville through reducing crime and giving nonviolent offenders a path to treatment as opposed to one of incarceration.

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