December 26, 2013

Massachusetts veterans court aims at reform

It's part of a movement to give veterans special help in the legal system.

By Denise Lavoie
The Associated Press

DEDHAM, Mass. — Ed Cowen is a big, tough-looking ex-Marine – 6-foot-4, 295 pounds, with tattoos covering his arms and piercings in his ears, lip and cheek.

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Adam Matthews, 23, of Bellingham, Mass., holds 10-month-old Jacob while his wife, Alexa, holds twin brother Jackson as they receive a certificate from the Norfolk County Veterans Treatment Court in Dedham, Mass.

The Associated Press

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Adam Matthews, 23, of Bellingham, Mass., is applauded as he graduates from Norfolk County Veterans Treatment Court in Dedham, Mass. Matthews, a Marine Corp veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, is among the first to graduate in a special court program which attempts to help veterans charged with crimes get back on their feet.

So when he approaches a judge in court, the last thing you’d expect him to do is recite a poem he wrote himself.

But that’s exactly what he did recently as he made his weekly visit to the Norfolk Country Veterans Treatment Court in Dedham, where he and 25 other veterans are going through a program aimed at helping them deal with criminal charges, substance abuse problems and mental health issues.

“Now I’m focused on my future while remembering my past, because I want to come in first instead of always last,” Cowen read to Judge Mary Hogan Sullivan.

“I’ve been trying to silence my critics, and believe me they’re loud, I already know you’re happy, but I’m trying to make you proud,” he said, looking a bit sheepish as he glanced at the judge.

The Dedham court, the first of its kind in Massachusetts, is one of at least 130 Veterans Treatment Courts around the country. Judges hold court sessions – usually weekly – that are dedicated to helping veterans.

Since 2008, when a judge in Buffalo, N.Y., started the first such court, thousands of veterans have gone through the program. An average of about 40 veterans are now being handled in each of the 130 courts, according to Justice for Vets, a nonprofit group based in Alexandria, Va.

Cowen, who spent seven months fighting in Iraq, is like many of the vets who come through the treatment court. After spending almost four years in the Marines, Cowen returned home suffering from anxiety attacks. He began abusing drugs and alcohol, and eventually became suicidal, he said.

In May 2012, he broke into a convenience store and stole several packs of cigarettes and candy bars, leaving a $5 bill on the counter. His case was referred to the Veterans Treatment Court about a year ago.

“I didn’t know what the term was for all the panic attacks and nightmares I was having,” said the 26-year-old Cowen, of Taunton. “They’ve sent me to a few programs to try to get my head on straight.”

Cowen and the other veterans are required to go to the court every Tuesday – sometimes less often – and report their progress in various mental health, substance abuse and job training programs. The court works with a team of community-based treatment providers. The veterans are also matched with other vets who act as mentors.

In a courtroom lined with military flags, a probation officer tells the judge about their successes and setbacks. The veterans are already on probation when they are referred to the court.

On a recent Tuesday, after one veteran told the judge he didn’t have much to do at the halfway house he’s living at, she let him know she wasn’t pleased.

“I want to know what you’re doing to occupy your time,” she said. “We need a written schedule.”

Another veteran told the judge he has a chance to graduate from college in April. His grade point average is a perfect 4.0, and the judge reacts the way a proud mother would.

“It doesn’t get much better than that,” she says, smiling.

Sullivan presides over the court with a maternal tone that is sometimes firm, but always encouraging. She said many of the veterans who come before her suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries and other mental health issues.

“The goal of the court is to right the ship, as it were, and to return them to the productive lives they led before they went into the service,” she said.

(Continued on page 2)

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