SUNBURY — The unique factors of veterans’ mental health led to the establishment of the Northumberland County Veterans Treatment Court in 2011.
The Northumberland County Veterans Treatment Court is one of six Northumberland County Veterans Treatment Courts. It is one of 25 veterans processing courts in Pennsylvania and the only one in the four county area of Northumberland, Snyder, Union and Montour. They help veterans who have come into contact with the justice system because of criminal offences.
“There are issues that are unique to veterans, particularly service-related issues, whether it’s mental health issues, addictions or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” said Northumberland County Judge Paige Rosini, who oversees the county’s six processing courts. “When they are arrested for certain things, we prefer to treat them so that they are better off as people and that there is no recidivism. We try to avoid throwing people in jail if we can help them or offer them services.”
The Veterans Treatment Team is made up of members from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Children and Youth Services, Drug and Alcohol Services, Behavioral Health Services, treatment providers, certified specialists in recovery, adult probation, the district attorney’s office and the courts.
In 2019, Northumberland County Chairman Judge Charles Saylor appointed Rosini to oversee only the Treatment Court for Veterans, Behavioral Health, DUI, Drugs, Family and Juveniles. The two judges previously shared the courts between them.
At the common pleas level, Northumberland County, under Justice Robert B. Sacavage, established a drug treatment court in 2005, DUI and behavioral health were introduced soon after, the drug treatment court veterans processing court was introduced in 2011 and the family court was established in 2018. In 2016 the veterans processing court was introduced at the magistrate level.
The first veterans court opened in Buffalo, NY in 2008, based on drug treatment and/or mental health treatment courts where drug addiction or mental health treatment is offered as an alternative to incarceration, according to the National Center for State Courts.
How it works
The processing court cannot be mandated. Individuals have the choice or can apply for it themselves. Each individual is screened before being approved for the program. The nature and seriousness of the charges as well as comments from victims are considered in the application, the team said.
“Sometimes the victim is a family member and the victim wants them to get treatment,” Rosini said.
They are intensely supervised throughout the program. They must submit to drug and alcohol and mental health assessments and must follow all recommendations. The aggregate sentence is usually three years; the court-processing portion of the sentence is usually completed within one year and the participants remained under supervision until the remainder of the aggregate sentence expired.
Adult probation supervisor Megan Kriner, treatment court coordinator, said 31 veterans had graduated from the program. She said the change through the program is noticeable in successful graduates.
“With a lot of people, you can see that changing over time,” Kriner said. “They can be resentful of being involved in the criminal justice system or under surveillance. When they start out, they have a lot of negative feelings about being in the system. People who open their minds and listen to what teach them, you can really see people relax and change for the better, they get their jobs back, they have better relationships with their families and loved ones.
Veterans also receive guidance and support from other veterans who coach, guide and serve as role models for participants. Volunteer veteran mentors can help the participant navigate treatment, the court, and the veterans system, but they do not take on the role of advocates or treatment providers. Participants and mentors are matched as much as possible, by branch of service, by area of the county where they live.
“It’s another great resource for participants, to have someone who’s had a lot of similar experiences that they can talk to,” Kriner said. “Our mentors help our people get to meetings or different medical appointments or treatment appointments. They’ve been a nice person to lean on for our vets.”
A veteran mentor wanted to give back
Vietnam War veteran Buzz Meachum, 75, from Northumberland, has been a program mentor for 10 years. After hearing about the program in the media, he contacted Judge Saylor, his neighbor, and asked him to be a part of it.
“I was very lucky in my past service life,” said Meachum, who served in the Navy. “This program felt like something I could do to give back to those who didn’t have my luck.”
In addition to Meachum, the following people are also mentors in the program: Phil Rosko, Jim Kealy, Stacy Stancavage and Paul Leschiskie. Mike Balducci was also instrumental in implementing the program.
Meachum said he will meet the participants, call and talk whenever they need someone, attend court hearings and cheer them on. He said he particularly likes never to hear from a veteran again because it means he has moved on with his life in a positive way.
“It was worth it,” he said. “We encourage them and tell them there is a better way to live.”
The program was successful and likely saved lives, he said.
“Not everyone makes it through the program,” he said.
Meachum: “Help is here”
Meachum said he was seeking physical and mental health services through the VA due to his exposure to Agent Orange. He now regularly sees a psychologist in Williamsport.
“I reached a point a year ago I knew things weren’t right,” he said. “I was getting frustrated. My temper was getting shorter. That (the therapy) was a big help.”
Veterans are a unique group of people, he said.
“Some veterans never want to let other people know they’re in trouble,” Meachum said. “They see it as a sign of weakness. For me, not seeking help is a sign of weakness. Help is there. Just ask.”