Special court program helps area veterans in legal trouble

Friday, November 11, 2011

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- Billy Williams was finishing up yet another stint in a county jail, this time for violating restrictions of his probation meant to keep him sober, when he was first introduced to the SEMO Veterans Treatment Court Program, the nation's first rural, multi-jurisdictional veterans court program.

Nearly 60 and having battled cocaine addiction, this is not the first time someone has reached out to Williams. But it is first time the Navy veteran believes a program will help him make the lifestyle changes he needs to clean up his life.

"I know I can succeed. I've got a small army of people helping me," believes Williams, who met Wednesday morning at the Butler County Courthouse with program personnel to discuss the small and large accomplishments that already dot that road.

They were joined by a courtroom full of supporters, federal, state and local officials, and those who helped the new program reach its three-month anniversary this week. Speaking at the event were Missouri U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, Arkansas U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Sen. Rob Mayer and state Rep. Todd Richardson.

SEMO Veterans Treatment Court Program was started in September to serve veterans on probation for felony convictions. Its goal is to make sure those who have sacrificed to protect this country's freedoms receive the support they need to have a better life, according to organizers.

The treatment program currently serves at least six people in Butler, Carter, Wayne, Ripley, Stoddard and Dunklin counties. Organizers are already working to expand to Cape Girardeau and Scott counties, with hope that in time they will be able reach more veterans and all of the 21 Missouri counties served by John J. Pershing VA Medical Center.

"Those six counties already include four different Probation and Parole districts and three different judicial circuits. It's hard to work across lines that don't generally get crossed," said Drug Court Commissioner Phillip Brit, who presides over the court, of the challenges faced by the program, the model of which is being examined by officials for use in areas such as St. Louis.

The court offers an intense 15- to 18-month supervised treatment plan for veterans, most of whom are dealing with substance abuse dependence, behavioral health needs or a combination of the two. Veterans currently in the program include recently discharged men who served in combat in Iraq to long discharged members of the service, such as Williams, who has been out since 1974.

Participants meet regularly with Brit and representatives of the VA, Probation and Parole and other agencies that can offer assistance. They receive incentives or penalties based on their work to meet treatment goals.

Meetings are more frequent during veterans' early days in the program, when they are also attending all-day classes, five days a week, which focus on everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to anger management, relapse prevention, being truthful and how to repair relationships.

"What makes this work I think is accountability. The follow up we provide is what really makes the difference, what really changes people in the long run," Brit said. "Most programs can't spend 18 months with someone."

The court's team also focuses on helping veterans get jobs and find homes.

"To get turned around, they need to find success by doing the things that keep us honest," said Gary Helle, VA Veterans Justice Outreach Program specialist, who as part of his duties helps find the men and women who would best be served by this program.

Pertinent address:

1500 N. Westwood Blvd., Poplar Bluff, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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