LIMA — A specialized program has been launched at Lima Municipal Court that is intended to provide critical assistance to military veterans who have served their country honorably but who exhibited problems dealing with societal norms… and have a criminal record to prove it.
Magistrate John Payne said the court’s veterans treatment docket, while still in its infancy, is a form of expanded probation afforded to military vets who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Rather than come down on those veterans with a heavy hand, the 18- to 24-month program is designed to connect vets with the necessary resources — under the watchful eye of volunteer mentors and a highly specialized probation officer — to get their lives on the right track.
Payne said the concept of the veterans treatment docket is similar to that of the drug courts that are commonplace in cities and counties across the nation, including in Allen County. He said monthly group meetings in court, one-on-one mentoring, guidance from a probation officer specially trained in the needs of former servicemen and servicewomen and a direct link to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ office in Dayton are tools used by the court that are aimed at giving vets a chance to improve their lives.
“This is a way to thank veterans for their service,” Payne said, “a way of serving those people who have served us and who now have service-related mental health or drug issues. Some of our veterans are under a lot of stress, which can lead to assaults and other violent behavior.”
Those stressors, Payne said, range from difficulty in finding adequate and affordable housing to post-traumatic stress syndrome and other mental health issues. Oftentimes the stress comes solely from battling red tape associated with obtaining services from the VA.
“Our goal is to connect these veterans with services to address whatever underlying issues they may have” that brought them into the legal system in the first place, Payne said. “To date we’ve identified a dozen veterans that we can connect with the Dayton VA and our local veterans’ service office to get screenings for mental health issues. We have a direct contact at the VA center, someone we can call to help them get qualified for veterans’ benefits. Another goal is to get all their medications reviewed by the VA to make sure it’s appropriate.”
Accountability is key
The local program began to take shape after Municipal Court Judge David Rodabaugh attended a speech delivered by Ohio Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy, who has been a vocal advocate for specialized court dockets.
“Judge Rodabaugh said he wanted to start a veteran treatment docket and asked me to oversee it,” Payne said. “It’s been a very rewarding part of my job … to see these veterans improve their lives. I think they appreciate what we are doing. Sometimes accountability helps people make improvements in their life.”
While the program currently is geared toward veterans who have already been found guilty in a court of law, Payne said local officials are “trying to identify veterans up front in the legal justice process — before they’ve been sentenced — to see if in some instances we can save jail resources by diverting these people from jail time” through reduced charges and community-based corrections programs.
“With the high volume of cases we have in this court, it’s hard to give everyone that type of individual treatment. You have to identify the groups of people who are at higher risk that you think you can help,” the magistrate said.
Amy Heath is the probation officer who oversees the dozen veterans currently enrolled in the program. She also helps find mentors — usually retired military personnel — who agree to be available 24/7 if the veteran with which they’ve been paired needs to reach out and talk.
“We’re blessed. We’ve got some good mentors, but we’re always looking for more,” Payne said.
Anyone interested in serving as a mentor is asked to call Heath at 419-221-5223.
‘An honor to help’
One of those mentors is Richard “Butch” Brewer, commander of the Lima post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and a longtime advocate for military men and women.
“There are a lot of veterans around Lima who need a lot of help,” Brewer said. “These guys need help, and I’m glad to help get this program started. I think it’s going to help quite a bit with some of these guys.”
Brewer for many years has assisted local vets in navigating the complexities of the VA. Thanks to the new local program, some veterans may start to receive benefits for the first time.
“They’re often too proud to ask for help,” Brewer said.
The VFW commander is currently mentoring two veterans in the court program, and he’s proud to do it.
“They can call me at any time, and I call them. Unless you’ve been in somebody’s shoes, it’s hard to know what’s going on. It’s an honor to help them,” Brewer said.
The veterans docket in Lima Municipal Court kicked off in February but was immediately derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Sessions resumed in June.
“It’s been rewarding, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be some bumps in the road,” Payne said. “These veterans are in some cases battling lifetime issues, so relapses aren’t going to be surprising.”
However, for the first time in the court’s history, there is now a help network in place if that happens.