Veterans (Legal) Affairs Special court works to address veterans' special needs

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By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

When Judge Karen Khalil, chief judge of 17th District Court in Redford, had two tough cases involving returning veterans, she found herself wondering whether there was a better way to handle them. She also feared that the cost of not doing anything could be high.

"If you're watching the news, you'll see many veterans across the country involved in high-profile episodes, some resulting in deaths," Khalil said.

The result was "Veterans Court," a special court that takes into account all the circumstances of a returning veteran. The court will hold its fifth session this month.

Redford's 17th Judicial District Veterans Court and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs held training sessions for court and law enforcement personnel on March 8-9. The program, called "Managing Veterans Who Suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Signs, Symptoms, Safety and Treatment," trained 175 staffers in just those two sessions.

The Veterans Court in Redford was dedicated on Nov. 10, 2012, and held its first session on Nov. 14. The court, which is the fourth in the state of Michigan and the first in the suburbs of Wayne County, provides support to veterans who are involved in the criminal justice system by offering a coordinated response to the problems they face.

"Judges across the country, including myself, are seeing firsthand the effects of war on returning military personnel and veterans as they try to get back to their lives after serving our country," Khalil said. "We know that many veterans can be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries, substance abuse and other problems stemming from war and are committing crimes as a result."

But one organization can't do the job alone. Redford's court draws heavily on other agencies for guidance and assistance.

"We're working closely with both the medical and benefits divisions of the Veterans Administration, local veterans groups including our local VFW Post 345, Wayne County's Dept. of Veterans Affairs, the vet center in Dearborn, as well as prosecutors and my probation staff to ensure that these veterans are provided with the tools they need to lead a productive and law-abiding life," Khalil said.

Khalil also believes that Redford's location has helped build a strong program.

"Because we're between Detroit and Ann Arbor, we've been blessed by having both communities offer assistance," she said.

In addition to helping veterans deal with legal problems, the program offers a mentoring component.

"Eventually we will be assigning each of the defendants in our program a mentor who served in the same branch of the military," Khalil said. "We find that the mentor serves as a very useful tool in giving the veteran somebody they can identify with and turn to when they need assistance."

Last week's training sessions are part of a complete package intended to assist and educate people who deal with veterans as much as the veterans themselves.

"We've received training during the mental health summit early last year and this program just completed," Khalil said. "We've explained veterans court to the Wayne County Association of Chiefs of Police. The training we did last week was important so that first responders understand that if it's a veteran they're interacting with, PTSD was an issue they would have some background on before they got to the scene."

Veterans assisted by the program need not have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and no distinction is drawn between veterans who served in combat and those who served in support roles.

"Veterans who were not exposed to combat still can have substance-abuse issues or anger issues," Khalil said. "Even if they don't have PTSD, they may have other issues that bring them into the criminal justice system. They're all evaluated by probation officers on a case-by-case basis and then provided whatever treatment may be appropriate for them."

Published: Wed, Mar 14, 2012

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