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Kansas is adding court programs that help veterans struggling with trauma and addiction

 Corey Schramm (middle) graduates from a veterans court in Johnson County next to U.S. Representative Sharice Davids (right).
Courtesy Corey Schramm
Corey Schramm (middle) graduates from a veterans court in Johnson County next to U.S. Representative Sharice Davids (right).

Kansas will soon have five of these speciality courts that are staffed with fellow service members

TOPEKA, Kansas — Corey Schramm had been on probation twice because of legal troubles, but it didn’t help. His life before recovery was not great.

“Every day, I was either stoned, or drunk or probably both,” Schramm said.

His relationship with his kids suffered and he bounced from job to job. But his life changed when he was enrolled in veterans court, a special type of court exclusively for military members tailored to deal with mental health issues and other challenges they face.

Schramm said after going through the court, his marriage is as strong as it has ever been and his relationship with his children has improved. He is even trying to become an addiction counselor.

“There’s a lot more happiness and a lot more stuff going forward instead of backward.” said Schramm, who served in the Army from 2003-2012.

More people in Kansas could be receiving that type of help soon because $3.1 million in grants will establish programs in Shawnee, Sedgwick and Leavenworth counties. The funding will be paid out over four years.

These three courts join the two specialty programs that already exist in Johnson County and Wyandotte County. All five veterans courts could be launched by January 2023.

The money will also create a statewide specialty court coordinator position. This position will first focus on the veterans program before overseeing other courts.

These courts work by building a support group around veterans, including parole officers, rehab specialists and others who served in the military. Mental health and substance abuse courts exist for members of the general public, though it depends county by county if they are available.

Schramm said there is a special bond between service members that this type of court leverages.

“The staff in veterans court kind of understood what made you tick,” he said. “I don’t think (civilians will) ever understand unless you actually go through it.”

One in four active duty members show signs of mental health conditions, a 2014 study from JAMA Psychiatry found. Those issues might also be specific to veterans, like PTSD from being deployed, which is why a court specifically focusing on that population can help.

Veterans courts, like all specialty courts, are no walk in the park. They could involve regular supervision, counseling and even drug tests – which for Schramm sometimes came five times a week.

Johnson County Judge Timothy McCarthy said service members likely need a combination of mental health and substance abuse services, something these specialty courts combine.

About 10 people graduate from the Johnson County veterans court each year, and that program has graduated about 60 people since its inception in 2016. Another 20 are currently in the program.

McCarthy said these courts save taxpayers money because the services can keep people out of jail or prison, which are far more expensive. He said about 95% of the people who graduate from the court avoid future legal troubles, a better rate than other court programs.

Veterans courts are starting to boom across the country. Johnson County’s court was the 287th in the country, but now there are over 600. The first court was launched in 2008 by now-retired judge Robert Russell in Buffalo, New York.

Russell said on a Department of Justice podcast that military members were coming to his court often with substance use and mental health issues. He remembers one instance of a veteran being unresponsive to treatment and when Russell asked him why, he barely got a response. The person didn’t even make eye contact with the judge.

It wasn’t until two veterans who were also in court that day talked to the person and convinced them to engage more with treatment.

Bill Turner, director of the Kansas Commission on Veterans Affairs Office, said these programs also help connect people with service in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Northeast Kansas has a large swath of veterans, and Topeka, Wichita and Leavenworth have the three VA medical centers in the state – though plenty of outpatient clinics are scattered throughout Kansas.

Turner, a retired brigadier general, said the courts could provide a more comfortable way to engage in VA services. Having court personnel and other service members also adds an extra layer of accountability.

“This is a proactive program,” Turner said. “It's a proactive way to get veterans to … (get) this help.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

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Blaise Mesa