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Veterans court coming to Niagara County in July

LOCKPORT – For the past several years, New York State’s court system has recognized that military veterans sometimes have unique reasons for becoming involved in crime, especially offenses stemming from drug or alcohol use.

Starting in late July, Niagara County will join the trend toward special treatment courts for veterans.

County Judge Sara Sheldon Farkas will preside over the county’s first veterans vourt every Thursday afternoon in Lockport.

The only others in Western New York are in Buffalo, Jamestown and Batavia.

A veterans court is a type of drug court, offering treatment by counselors for substance abuse problems that lead to crime. Like a regular drug court, charges may be reduced or dismissed if the treatment program is successful.

But the key difference is the veterans court’s volunteer mentors, all of whom are veterans themselves, and some of whom started as defendants.

At a gathering earlier this month in the County Courthouse, Buffalo City Judge Robert Russell, who has been presiding over a veterans court since January 2008, briefed participating attorneys and staffers on how it works.

“It is a treatment court where we work with vets who have a mental health diagnosis or substance abuse issues,” Russell said.

Although there are 148 drug courts in New York State, Niagara County will have only the 18th veterans court. Statewide, nearly 1,000 veterans have been brought before them.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is the most common diagnosis that might lead an offender to veterans court, but there are many others.

“It’s not mandatory that it has to be a combat veteran,” Russell said.

But it is required that the veteran must have avoided a dishonorable discharge from the armed forces.

Manny Welch, who served in the Navy from 1975 to 1979, was one of the first graduates to work his way through Russell’s court, after being charged with drug possession, petit larceny and unlicensed driving.

“All of my charges were gratefully expunged,” Welch said.

“He had tried other treatment programs, and he felt lost,” Farkas said. “He’s now the poster child for veterans court.”

“He knows the patients. He knows what they need,” said Donna Sherman, a program manager for the Veterans Administration, who assists with the court.

The mentors can talk to military men and women in a language they understand and can relate to their troubles in a way that a civilian counselor, no matter how well trained, simply cannot do.

“It makes a huge difference. Veterans in our program will listen more closely to what Manny says than to what the counselor says,” Sherman said.

“I was closed-minded for a while in drug court because I felt people who hadn’t walked in my shoes couldn’t help me,” Welch said. “Veterans court made the difference. The mentors can take us to the side and say, ‘I know what you’re talking about.’ ”

Jim Germain, a retired colonel in the 914th Airlift Wing at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, volunteers in Russell’s Buffalo court.

He said mentors talk privately with the defendants, often about issues the veterans don’t want to discuss in open court.

“It’s kind of driven by what the vet needs,” Germain said. “We’re not lawyers. We’re not social workers. We’re there to point the vet to the resources he or she needs.”

Since it is a type of drug court, defendants must pass regular drug tests, and if they don’t, or otherwise disobey the rules, the judge has the authority to send them to jail for a few days, a process called a sanction.

“Every once in a while, a vet will appear in handcuffs,” Germain said.

Welch said when he went through the program, “I had to do a lot of hard work.”

As in regular drug court, defendants must go through treatment, outpatient care and a recovery program.

Russell said he has a VA representative and someone who can help with veterans benefits in his courtroom for each session of veterans court.

“We have to learn to trust before we can start getting better,” Welch said.

Each county that operates a veterans court may choose its own parameters as to what cases qualify for the program.

Farkas said she will start with nonviolent cases, but is willing to take misdemeanors as well as felonies.

She said city and town judges already have been asked to refer cases from their courts, which handle mostly misdemeanors, to get them ready for veterans court.

The defendants will enter the treatment program before they have been convicted of anything.

“We’re going to take the cases as early as possible,” Farkas said. “The disposition would take place in veterans court.”

She said she has been “begging” the court system for at least four years to allow Niagara County to have a veterans court.

One of the first defendants to enter Niagara County veterans court may be Michael D. Rados, a 59-year-old North Tonawanda man who was indicted on a second-degree assault charge. He allegedly struck a woman who was living with him in the head with a backscratcher made of bamboo on Aug. 31.

At a court appearance the same day as the inaugural gathering for veterans court, Farkas broached the idea with Rados, a County Jail inmate who denied being homeless but said he couldn’t remember where he lived.

“This is a treatment court,” Farkas told him. “We will sit on you and force you to be clean and sober … We’re going to give you mental health treatment. We’re going to give you alcohol treatment.”

“Two years ago, we got approval, and then the budget crisis hit the state,” Farkas said. Finally, Judge Paula L. Feroleto, administrative judge for the 8th Judicial District, gave the go-ahead, although Farkas said she was sure officials farther up the line had to approve it, too.

“The people on my staff won’t get more money. My staff will do a lot more work,” Farkas said.

“If it required money, it wouldn’t happen,” Germain said.

But the main point is to assist men and women who have worn the country’s uniform and came home with problems to which others can’t relate.

“We will do what we can as a community court system to help our veterans,” Russell said.