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Veterans court provides help for post-service problems

Judge Patricia Riehl presides over Jefferson County Veterans Treatment Court
Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

Robert Brummel’s troubles began even before he left the Army in 2010. Then things went downhill when he became a civilian.

“It was all alcohol and drug abuse because of certain things that were going on,” he recalls. “Marriage issues. Divorce. Yeah, homeless.”

And the 30-year-old Fenton resident can quickly rattle off the offenses that landed him in the criminal justice system: a third DWI, child endangerment, possession of a chemical substance with intent to alter and manufacture crystal meth.

Then, his public defender referred Brummel to the new veterans treatment court in Jefferson County, and he says what had been a growing nightmare became “amazing. I couldn’t ask for anything better.

“Everybody is here to help. They’re very nice, and as long as you’re honest and do what they ask, good things will happen.”

Brummel is one of two military veterans involved with the court in Hillsboro that began in March. In charge is Associate Circuit Judge Patricia Riehl, who admits that, at first, she doubted that such a court was needed.

But her experiences with other special courts, dealing with family and alcohol  issues, helped persuade her to become part of a growing movement to deal with the special problems that veterans face and the special services they need.

She oversees a multidisciplinary team, ranging from prosecutors to social workers to law enforcement officers to defense attorneys to drug testers to representatives of the VA to volunteer mentors, usually veterans themselves, who help shepherd the defendants through the system. Riehl says the work can be gratifying but also heartbreaking.

In the coming school year, the effort will also include social work students from Fontbonne University. Many of them grew up in Jefferson County and, under the direction of assistant professor Laura Beaver, they will track the kinds of services available to veterans there and help gather data to make the journey through the system as smooth as possible.

“Our goal,” Beaver says, “is to compare the outcomes of veterans that are able to go through the program versus veterans that choose not to or [who] are screened out of going through the program, and comparing them years out. How are they doing in their life? What’s going on? How are their outcomes?”
Riehl has a pretty good idea of what the main outcome for the veterans should be – getting out of the criminal justice system altogether.

“They were getting no treatment, essentially,” she said, referring to a lack of effort to treat the special problems veterans face once they leave the military. “They were treated like every other criminal defendant.

“If you give the veterans the treatment that they need and require, you’re going to get a lot better outcomes. You’re not going to have the rate of recidivism that you have if they just to go prison.”

A growing movement

Veterans treatment courts began in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008  and have been spreading across the country ever since. One exists in the city of St. Louis, and the St. Louis County Council appears headed toward approving one later this year.

Riehl says the Veterans Administration can respond to a lot of the needs that former service members have, but the outreach to help them navigate the maze of whatever help may be out there isn’t always available.

Still, she wasn’t always sold on the concept of a special court, until she saw what the consequences could be.

“Several years ago, another judge put forth an idea of a veterans treatment court, and I blew that idea off,” she says. “I said, ‘Look, we live close to St. Louis. There’s a VA center, they can go get what they need there.’ Then, my assignment changed a bit, and I did more treatment court work, and I went back into a special court. I had a veteran in that court, and he wasn’t doing quite as well as we had anticipated.

“We had set him up with the Veterans Administration for additional services that we felt he really needed that he wasn’t getting. And the night before he was to go to the VA, he killed himself. It became very personal to me at that point in time that we needed a veterans court, that we were not meeting the specific needs of veterans. That motivated me.”

After several months of planning, with the help of a $236,000 grant, the court began in March.

Fontbonne became involved because evaluation of how the court and the veterans are doing will play a big part in guaranteeing its success. Beaver said that the university’s bachelor’s of social work program will be able to provide valuable experience and information for students and the court.

"It became very personal to me at that point in time that we needed a veterans court, that we were not meeting the specific needs of veterans. That motivated me." -- Judge Patricia Riehl

“Our social work program has a focus on rural communities,” she said. “Jefferson County is a community that would be considered rural. It is very underserved and lacking a lot of the resources that we have in St. Louis County and St. Louis city. So we’re really excited for our students to have the opportunity for hands-on experience in the field, doing this evaluation.”
The aim, Beaver said, is to use what she called "community mapping" to create a resource manual specifically tailored to help veterans in Jefferson County find the services they need.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” she said. “A lot of times in social work, what we do is just trying to help people know what’s available to them and kind of broker those relationships.

“Our goal is to create this map that we can show where things are, show what resources are out there, what’s available, where there are needs. Hopefully, that can be used in the future to create different programs or meet needs that are not being met.”

With continued financing always a concern, Riehl said having that kind of concrete information will be invaluable.

“I’ll be able to take it to funding sources and say look, this is where our process outcome is, this is what our end outcome looks like. We’re a viable entity. We do what we say we’re doing.”

It takes a village

At 2:30 p.m. on a recent Monday, Riehl convened a meeting in her small, crowded chambers on the second floor of the Jefferson County Courthouse. She was seated at the head of a conference table that featured two jars filled with bite-sized candy, under a framed poster with a quote from Margaret Mead:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

The group was discussing Brummel and the court’s other defendant, who did not want to be identified. Riehl went around the room, getting opinions from the prosecutor’s office, law enforcement, probation and parole and others. How are the two veterans doing? Where are they doing well? Where are they falling short? What do they need to succeed?

Comments range from praise – “I don’t feel like he’s trying to be insubordinate” – to concerns – “When is he going to be adult enough to be turned loose from the court? – to obstacles in their path. Noting that one of the men actually rode his bicycle 15 miles to keep an appointment when he had no other way to get there, they discussed the lack of transportation options in Jefferson County as a major concern.

“We may eliminate all the stress we can for these guys,” one member of the group said, “but getting to these activities is adding to their stress.”

Riehl talked about the annual veterans treatment court conference meeting in Washington, D.C., which many members of the team would be attending. Meetings with members of the House and Senate from Missouri were on the agenda, with one topic at the head of the list: “Funding, funding, funding.”

After the conference in chambers, Riehl called the weekly court session to order. Acting like a stern but concerned parent, she quizzed each defendant on how his week had gone. Each had written essays, as required; one turned to the courtroom audience and read to the court out of a spiral notebook.

"I have to stop being a victim of my past and start being what the Army taught me to be, a victor." -- A defendant in Veterans Treatment Court

His message included this realization:

“I have to stop being a victim of my past and start being what the Army taught me to be, a victor.”

Both men received congratulations and applause for their accomplishments of the past week, plus a $25 gas card they could use to help win over voluntary drivers to help them get where they need to go.

“There are many people in the community who are willing to give you not a hand out, but a hand up,” Riehl told the first defendant.

As she gave the gas card to Brummel, she said:

“You did the hard work, and because you did the hard work, that’s our way of giving back to you.”

Putting wigs on a horse

After court adjourned, Brummel sat down for an interview. He was willing to talk about his three years in the Army, including 11 months in Afghanistan, and the problems that followed him into civilian life. He also talked about the regimen that he had to follow to win the approval of Judge Riehl and the treatment court.

Is it easy?

“That depends on what you think is easy,” he replied.

He has to attend court each Monday, go to twice-weekly sessions of "ComTre" – Jefferson County Community Treatment – plus a counseling session at Jefferson Barracks. He also talked about one activity that he tried but quit.

“I was doing equine therapy,” Brummel said, “but it’s not for me. It could be for other people.”

Robert Brummel
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
Robert Brummel

What was equine therapy? He said he could do whatever he wanted to the horse.

“It just seemed weird to me,” he said. “You could put wigs on them. You could throw hula hoops at them. You could paint them. You could walk them, brush them, bathe them. From what they said, they have never kicked anyone.”

Brummel said the horses were supposed to help with social anxiety and anger, but “I thought it was boring.” He said he would rather be playing with his 3-year-old son.

Has the court made a difference in his life?

“If there wasn’t a treatment program,” he said, “I’d be in prison. I wouldn’t be able to see my son still. I’d be in prison.”

Brummel has plans to apply to Jefferson College, with a vague idea of what he’d like to study – maybe criminal justice, maybe the arts, maybe hydraulics with an eye to go back overseas and resume work as a helicopter mechanic.

Asked to read one of the essays he had written earlier for the court, he opened his notebook and turned to a hand-written autobiography:

“I want to stay with veterans court because I need help. The program is not meant to be a get-out-of-jail-free card, easy walk through the park. I like being free. I like hard work. Vet court is an opportunity to get my life back and under control…. “Vet court is my full-time job until the program is completed. I set high expectations for myself. Start vocational rehab. See my son. Be the dad I always wanted to be. Trying to be a diesel mechanic. Be on a giant poster of success. Failure is not an option here. I look forward coming to court. I want to stay so that one day, I’m able to help other veterans in need.”

So when you’re struggling with these kinds of problems, it’s nice to know you’re not alone, right?
“Yeah,” Brummel said, “it is.”

Commanding officer

Dealing with people who come from a military culture, judges in veterans treatment court have been likened to commanding officers – someone who has the best interests of those in their command at heart, but still has to let everyone know who is in charge.

Riehl agrees with that characterization, with a little bit of parent thrown in as well.

She says not all veterans who wind up in the criminal justice system are eligible to take part in the treatment court. Serious offenses such as murder, gang-related activity or sex offenses are disqualifiers.

“We try to be as inclusive as we can without jeopardizing either the staff or the program,” Riehl said.

Once they are admitted, defendants get a participants manual and can be with the court as long as 20 months. Since the Jefferson County program just started in March, no one has reached graduation stage yet.

As they get further along in the program, Riehl said, defendants’ weekly sessions may change to monthly, but she doesn’t want them to have a jarring transition back to unsupervised life.

“We found out in our adult drug court program that having them come weekly all the way to the end made some people feel like we just dumped them out on the street,” she said, “and they didn’t get a transition from seeing me weekly to them not seeing me at all.

“So we transition them to an after-care phase, so that they are dealing with issues on their own. They don’t have to see me every week.”

Beaver, the Fontbonne professor, noted that one of the big pluses of the program is the use of volunteer mentors who are veterans themselves.

Laura Beaver is an assistant professor in the department of social work at Fontbonne University.
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
Laura Beaver of Fontbonne University

“They’re outside of that court professional interaction that they’re having with all these other treatment providers,” she said. “I think that’s a really unique component of this.”

And as they get closer to graduating, prospects for a job or further education or both  become important.

“Everybody is at a different place,” Beaver said. “The veterans in the program right now are trying to find full-time employment. It is a challenge, especially with everything they have going on, then being a part of the criminal justice system. But the team has been discussing what can we do to help this person find employment, even helping them figure out what kind of employment would be a good fit for them.”

For those vets who make it through the program successfully, an earlier plea of guilty can be withdrawn. If they come in after sentencing, or if their probation has been revoked, those circumstances can be mitigated as well.

Looking down the road, what do Riehl and Beaver hope to see the court accomplish, for the veterans and for the students who will be doing their field work in Jefferson County?

“We’re running numbers every month,” Beaver said, “so we can catch mistakes in the middle of it and fix it, rather than at the end. I hope too that our students are able to gain the experience and picture into what evaluation looks like in the real world.

“I think one of the challenges with social work is that I can sit in class and talk all day, but until they’re out there, actually doing it, that’s when I think students really understand and connect what we learn in the classroom with what it looks like in the real world.”
For Riehl’s part, she hopes she can replicate the experience she has had in other special treatment courts.

“I would hope I have veterans return to me and say, ‘Judge, I just want to come and chat with you and tell you how good my life is, ‘” she said. “Or one of their family members comes by and tells me that. That is what makes this process so rewarding.

“At the end of the day, you have affected someone’s life in a positive way. Many of them will come to me after I’ve seen them 10 years ago and say, ‘I want you to know how I’m doing. I went to college and got a degree. I’m doing really well, and you know, you saved my life.’ I don’t think you can get much better than that.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.