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Maine Veterans' Court Ready to Go - But no Judge
11/01/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

It's been about 18 months now since the state Legislature passed a law allowing special courts to be set up specifically to help veterans. In return for pleading guilty, veterans in the court system are put in touch with treatment programs, peer mentors and other services to help them get their lives back on track. So far, the only Veterans Court set up is in Kennebec County. The special court is ready to go, but as Tom Porter reports, there's one big glitch.

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The program was set up in Kennebec County, in part to meet the needs of younger vets, many of them suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. A year-and-half after lawmakers OK'd veterans' courts, the Kennebec County program is still the only one in the state.

"We're really hoping to be able to do a Veterans Court in our area," says Sgt. Victoria Langelier, a programs director at the Androscoggin County jail in Auburn. Most of the pieces are in place for Androscoggin County to have its own vets court, she says - but one key ingredient is missing: They can't find a judge.

Langelier says the position is a demanding one, and it's unfunded.

"From what I understand it's all pro bono - it's not a paid spot," she says. "And it is quite a lengthy procedure to get the veterans in and out of the court, make sure that everything is going the way it should be, to make sure they're following up in all of their support systems that they're getting through Togus and through their counselors."

Since Veterans Courts were established in May 2012, Langelier says 129 vets have passed through the Androscoggin County Jail system. Only two of them were able to be referred to the specialty Veterans Court in Kennebec County.

Lt. Jeff Chute says the state needs more than one Veterans Court. "Well I think it's important to every county," Chute says. "One in the state's probably not going to be enough to serve all these people."

Chute, who is the administrator at the Androscoggin County jail, says staff members do all they can to help any inmates who are veterans. Chute says it's important to let veterans brought into the correctional system know of any VA programs that might assist them. It all helps, he says, but it falls short of the kind of individualized, specialist assistance that could be offered by the Veterans Court.

Jerry DeWitt agrees. He's a 28-year Army veteran now working as a nurse and a social worker. He also does a lot of volunteer outreach work with veterans in the Lewiston-Auburn area, and was among those who lobbied the Legislature to approve Veterans Courts last year.

While the search for a judge goes on in Androscoggin County, DeWitt says he meets monthly with Sgt. Langelier from the county jail.

"And she and I identify veterans who are going through the county jail system, and if the veteran asks for help, I go and see them in the jail to start the paperwork, whether it be for benefits, or referral to some resources that they need," DeWitt says.

Randall Liberty is Kennebec County sheriff, and is himself an Iraq veteran who has struggled with PTSD. He is also a driving force behind the existing Veterans Court in Augusta, which he says has offered help to about 25 vets so far. Two of those veterans have gone on to effectively "graduate" from the system, and are now enrolled in college.

Liberty says he realized the need for this kind of specialized help after serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq for a year. "I saw first-hand the 18-,19-, 20-year-old Marines, what they were going through and the difficulties and rigors of war, and it affirmed to me that when they return and they struggle, it's my duty to help them transition back," Liberty says.

To learn more about the Maine Veterans Court program, and some of those it has helped, look for the MPBN television documentary, "A Matter of Duty," which will be screened tonight at USM's hannaford Hall in Portland, and will be braodcast for the first time on MPBN Television Nov. 10.

Learn more about the documentary, "A Matter of Duty."



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