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Military Law,
Law Practice

Jul. 8, 2020

Mentors in Veterans Treatment Courts

For nine years, I ran over to the local Veterans Treatment Court, VTC, on Tuesday afternoons to act as a mentor, primarily to women veterans who ended up sideways with the law. The experience provided me a unique insight into what a veteran mentor can do.

Moore eileen web

4th Appellate District, Division 3

Eileen C. Moore

Associate Justice, California Courts of Appeal

In a former life, Justice Moore served as a combat nurse in Vietnam in the Army Nurse Corps. She was awarded the Vietnam Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, and the Cross of Gallantry with Palm. She is a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America. Since 2008, she has chaired the Judicial Council's Veterans and Military Families Subcommittee. For nine years, she served as a mentor in a Veterans Treatment Court, primarily to women veterans. In 2015, her book "Gender Results" received a Benjamin Franklin award. (Cool Titles, 2014)

"Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another."

"We've got your back."

For nine years, I ran over to the local Veterans Treatment Court, VTC, on Tuesday afternoons to act as a mentor, primarily to women veterans who ended up sideways with the law. The experience provided me a unique insight into what a veteran mentor can do.

The reason I got involved with mentoring is that the judge who launched California's first VTC, the Hon. Wendy Lindley, knew I was a Vietnam vet and asked me if I could tap some of the members of the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America to volunteer as mentors. Those Vietnam vets are still at it. But some veterans with more recent experience could make a lot of difference in California's 34 VTCs. To see where California's VTCs are, go to: https://www.courts.ca.gov/11181.htm#locations

Many of our returning military have become members of the California bar. Perhaps some of them could squeeze in a few hours a month to volunteer as a veteran mentor, providing current and relevant guidance.

Veterans Treatment Court

Collaborative courts, using evidenced based practices and a team of experts, focus on treatment instead of incarceration. From what I observed and experienced, I concluded there are four main differences between a VTC and other collaborative courts. First, the defendants, at least the ones who are veterans of our more recent wars, are usually inexperienced with the criminal justice system. Second, there is a representative of the Department of Veterans Affairs, VA, on the collaborative team. Third, to a certain extent, there is an emphasis on symbols, phrases, structures and cultural norms that are emblematic of military life. And fourth, and I think most important, each veteran is assigned a mentor. Just like the defendant, the volunteer mentor is usually a veteran.

How a mentor is selected

The majority of mentors have no affiliation with the VA. VTCs often announce to the community that volunteers are needed, and veterans who want to help other veterans come forward.

Different courts assign a particular veteran mentor to a particular veteran defendant in different ways. Most courts, however, have a person who is an administrator to or supervisor of the mentors. That head mentor position may or may not be a paid position. However, courts often do not have the financial wherewithal to pay for a head mentor, so, along with all the other mentors, the administrators of the mentors tend to be volunteers. Whoever does the pairing of the mentor and defendant tries to find two persons with similar backgrounds. If possible, both will have served in the same branch of service.

Why veteran mentors are important

Everyone with whom the veteran defendant deals in the court process, from the probation officer to the VA representative to the mental health practitioner to the lawyer, is taking notes, giving orders or preaching to the defendant. Most of them have no military experience. The veteran mentor, on the other hand, has experienced some of what the veteran defendant has. At some point, the mentor was in the military and later transitioned back into the civilian world. Thus, the mentor serves as an example of how the veteran defendant can successfully overcome what may seem insurmountable. The mere fact the mentor succeeded in that transition subtly provides guidance and encouragement for the veteran defendant to do the same thing. Additionally, studies have shown that veterans respond better to treatment when they work with other veterans.

Probably the most important function of the mentor/defendant relationship, however, is that the mentor is usually not taking notes or recording anything. The mentor is there for one reason only: to help the veteran defendant. Quite simply, the mentor is a source of constant support and encouragement, an important step toward getting the veteran back on the good citizen track.

Active support from a veteran mentor throughout treatment increases the likelihood that a veteran will remain in treatment and improves the chances for sobriety and law-abiding behavior in the future.

The offending veterans can relate to their veteran mentors as people who truly understand what it's like to stand in their shoes because their mentors have served in combat tours themselves. Mentors relate to the veterans through their shared military experiences, and this is important because it fosters camaraderie and helps to break the veterans of their "warrior mentality," so that they will be much more receptive to treatment.

What veteran mentors try to do

Mentors try to be in court when their mentees appear. Between court dates, each relationship depends on the two individuals. Some communicate by telephone or email from time to time. I would occasionally meet for coffee or lunch with my mentees. Some mentors continue to provide support, even after graduation.

There seems to be a correlation between what happened in court and how much the mentee leans on the mentor. At the early stage, veteran defendants sometimes have an attitude that the whole process is a waste of time. But when the veteran suffers some sort of sanction, such as an overnighter in jail, the veteran wants to interact more with the mentor and take the whole matter more seriously. The mentor is there to go with the flow.

In effect, the mentor is like an individual coach who provides encouragement. The veteran mentor is able to communicate with the veteran defendant in ways only another veteran can. They both understand the mentee prefers to suffer in silence because in the military they were taught to "embrace the suck." The mentor is available to engage when the mentee is ready to make the transition from compliance with the court rules to actual engagement with the healing process.

An example of what a mentor can do

One of my mentees, who had numerous tattoos and wild hair colors, sometimes pink or orange, might as well have had "arrest me" written across her forehead. I never asked her, but from some of the things she volunteered, I was of the impression she had been sexually assaulted in the military. I suspected she was trying to make herself unattractive so she wouldn't be attacked again.

Early one Sunday morning, she drove two blocks to a relative's house, still wearing her pajamas. A police officer pulled her over and she was arrested for being under the influence. Before court, she swore to me that she had not taken heroin or any other drug for 54 days. She explained she was scared and nervous when the officer questioned her. During the court session, the prosecutor read from the police report that when she was arrested, she was speaking very rapidly, her pulse was 125 and her eyeballs were shaking. It looked as if she was going to jail, even though the drug test results had not yet made it to court. There was a break in the proceedings and I asked the bailiff if I could approach her in the holding tank. I told her I didn't know how things were going to work out, but that I believed her. And I did. About 20 minutes later, court was back in session and the judge announced they were able to locate the test results. No drugs had been found in her system! The next day, I opened an email from her that had been written after midnight: "Eileen, I just wanted to tell you, thank you for going to court with me and being there and believing me."

Esprit de corps

Each time I went to the VTC, the mentors and mentees were just outside the courtroom waiting for the team to finish their collaborations and for the bailiff to open the courtroom doors. Serendipitously, these times genuinely expanded the esprit de corps of the group. Healing and soothing occurs when faces became familiar and people chatted with each other. Smiles, "attaboys" and encouraging pats on backs were common.

Because the judge had a rule that none of the defendants could leave until everyone's case was called, that sense of camaraderie continued inside the courtroom as well. Not only was the group disappointed when one of the offenders was sanctioned for something, the offender appeared to be ashamed for letting the others down. For each case, there seemed to be a common goal of success.

Challenges to mentors

Most of the offenders in a VTC have abused substances. Thus, sometimes a mentor might smell alcohol or observe something about the mentee that looks like a violation. Keep in mind, a mentor is not an arm of the state. Nor is the mentor usually charged with a duty to report suspicious behavior. Plus, an effective mentor-mentee relationship is strongly dependent on trust.

But to be valuable to the veteran defendant, a mentor has to do something when aberrant conduct is observed. I will tell you what I did on two occasions.

In the first situation, I sat there in court and heard the judge order that my mentee, a young man, not leave the state. At the next court hearing, in the hallway, he told me he had just gotten back from Las Vegas. I gently told him he placed his whole future in jeopardy by violating a court order. I told him that one of the court personnel could easily have seen him over there, and that if he were ejected from the VTC, the next step was sentencing.

On the other occasion, this time a young woman, I thought I smelled alcohol on her breath, but I wasn't sure. The fact that she kept popping mints in her mouth fortified my suspicion. Again in a gentle way, I told her that if she was back to drinking, she wasn't fooling anyone but herself. She looked a little ashamed and appeared to clean up her act after that.

Effects of pandemic

Along with the whole collaborative team, mentors are working diligently to keep in contact with their mentees. Mentors are on the telephone or some video platform to keep their mentees committed to healing. In one court, the mentors wear special T-shirts when speaking with the veteran defendants electronically.

Conclusion

Veteran mentors play a unique role in the VTC model. Volunteer veterans engage with offender veterans by encouraging them to change their lives. Mentors can connect to participants and provide unique peer support based on their shared military service and experience. While veteran mentors are highly beneficial, many VTCs in California, have found it difficult to recruit veteran mentors.

A law degree is not at all necessary for veteran mentors. On the other hand, lawyers often have more control over their schedules than veterans who work in many other fields. Plus, they understand how courts operate. If you are a veteran and want to give a little back to other veterans, consider volunteering as a mentor. 

#358433

Ben Armistead

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