Going to Bat

in Community/Education/Featured

By Bill Shilstone

San Mateo County Superior Court Judge John. L. (“Jack”) Grandsaert called the courtroom to order with some unusual introductory remarks to the defendants:

“The discipline that you showed during your military training and service is what convinces me that you can successfully complete your probation and treatment in this court. Veterans deserve different treatment. They have already sacrificed part of their lives for the benefit of the rest of us.”

Any of the county’s 29,000 military veterans who find themselves in trouble with the law should hope to end up in Judge Grandsaert’s Redwood City courtroom. Instead of facing fines or a jail term that will build on feelings of rejection and anger that often plague veterans, he or she will find an authority figure who talks to them like a favorite uncle and offers a helping hand.

Grandsaert and the team he put together to establish the Veterans Treatment Court are dedicated to helping the veteran complete probation and get treatment. Convictions may be expunged. Fines may be reduced or excused. Perhaps most important, the veteran may get the feeling that the system can be accepting and assisting instead of accusing and adversarial.

At a recent hearing, Grandsaert had a twinkle in his eye, not a glare, as he engaged nine veterans, in turn, in friendly, personally directed conversation.

“How is the rock climbing going? I know it’s therapeutic for you.”

“You made all your appointments; good for you. We’ll see what we can do about your restitution problem.”

Eight of the nine received the same treatment: a smile, a handshake, congratulations on a positive report, a gift certificate for coffee and a “See you in a month” sendoff. Courtroom spectators applauded each one. One no-show and one report of a probation violation were the only negatives.

Grandsaert, who was raised in Redwood City, was appointed to the Superior Court bench in 2004 and started the veterans’ court six years ago. He’d read about similar programs and had an affinity with the military, having served 10 years in the Army Reserve and a son, Patrick, making a career in the Air Force. “It seemed unfortunate that we couldn’t help a veteran by taking into account that military service is where problems originate,” Grandsaert said. “To me it’s an easy sell.”

Easy sell maybe, but with no budget for judges and staff for an extra court, it took Grandsaert a year and a half to get the Veterans Treatment Court going. He started gathering people he knew would be receptive, either veterans themselves or with veterans in their families. He convened meetings with representatives from offices of the Veterans Administration, district attorney, private defender, probation, and county behavioral health and recovery – all players on today’s  VTC team. They took on the assignment pro bono, on top of their regular jobs.

It’s the team working together, plus a willing veteran, that is responsible for the program’s success, said Danielle Barringer, a deputy probation officer assigned to the court, with a son in the Army.  “We figure out what is best for each and every veteran, we support them, watch them fail, pick them up again and watch them succeed.”

Milton Mooney, a recent graduate, and Tim Healy, one of his mentors, are typical of the defendants. Proudly showing off the certificates of achievement on the wall of his cozy Menlo Park apartment, Mooney told of turning to drugs and alcohol in Vietnam to mask painful memories from his two-year Army tour. He himself suffered a serious head injury in a Jeep crash. When he left the service, “My family didn’t want anything to do with me because of the drugs and alcohol.” He bought a car and began a cross-country journey “stopping in every state to get high” and leaving behind a string of driving-under-the influence arrests.

After almost 40 years of homelessness, Mooney was referred to the Palo Alto VA’s Homeless Veterans Rehabilitation Program at the Menlo Park campus. As long as a veteran is committed to reform and is crime free, he or she has a bed for six months and transition to the VA’s many rehabilitation programs.

Mooney didn’t quite make it. Another DUI put him in county jail in Redwood City for three months. VA clinical psychologist Matthew Stimmel came to the rescue and got Mooney into Grandsaert’s court. After 29 months of rehabilitation, Mooney, 65, was able to say to the celebrants at his graduation in November, “I’ve finally become a law-abiding senior citizen.”

“Counselors helped me get to where I am: DUI convictions gone from my record, a car, money in the bank, a job, housing (federally subsidized),” Mooney said. “I’ve never been there before. I want people to know it’s a blessing to be a vet, that we’re not bad people, and that vets court is God’s gift for giving us a second chance.” Mooney is now the newest mentor in Grandsaert’s court, someone who can “put an arm around the shoulder and say he knows the feeling,” said David Grillo, manager of the VA’s treatment liaison with the court.

Healy was a Navy airman from 1986 to 1990, and his story echoes Mooney’s.  “Alcohol is part of the culture in the military,” Healy said. “I graduated to bigger and better things and became a crystal meth addict. That led to losing jobs and being ostracized by family. I was an angry drug dealer. I pulled guns on people who owed me money. I was ugly.” Healy ended up in HVRP in 2010 and now works for the VA as an outreach specialist and is the lead mentor in the veterans’ court. Honored (with Grandsaert) in 2016 as co-Veteran of the Year, Healy’s personal turning point came when a psychologist told him, “If you change the way you think, you’ll change your life.  You create what happens.”

“I think what happens to many veterans who get in trouble,” he continued, “is that the adrenaline is suddenly gone. The military puts you in charge of life-and-death equipment, then you get out and go to work stocking shelves at Safeway. That was me. I’ve seen many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who just get bored. That leads to trouble.”

The success rate for the 175 veterans who have gone to the court is 100 percent, defined as connection with housing or treatment, Grillo said. From the court standpoint, the success rate is almost as good. “I’d say about two percent have problems after completing the program,” Grandsaert said. Nationwide, the rate of recidivism (another offense within three years) is 45 percent for misdemeanors and 60 percent for felonies.

“I also measure success by all the wonderful stories I hear,” Grandsaert said. He told of a man with a serious gambling addiction who was cured by his assignment to community service with the Warrior Canine Connection program, in which veterans train dogs to become service animals. “`Man’s best friend’ can be therapeutic for somebody down on their self-image who has trouble dealing with people,” he said.

Defendants eligible for assignment to the Veterans Treatment Court must have prior or current membership in the military and a diagnosis of trauma, substance abuse or other mental health issues that stem from military service. He or she must be eligible for VA benefits and for probation and not charged with serious violence. The VTC has handled cases of bank robbery, assault, and many DUI’s, Grandsaert said.

David Rice, a VTC mentor and assistant director of the Office for Military-Affiliated Communities at Stanford University, helps manage education benefits, connecting the 150 veterans on campus and facilitating needed social rehabilitation.

In both his mentoring and Stanford roles, Rice tried to ease the same kind of “culture shock” he experienced when he left the Army as a captain in 1997 after 11 years and went to work in graphic design. “My supervisors were afraid I was after their jobs,” he said. “In the Army, I knew my fellow soldiers had my back. It’s not like that in business.” Rice went to work at the VA as an addiction therapist and volunteered for the treatment court mentor program. He believes the program is successful, in part, because Grandsaert “talks to the veterans like they mean something.”

Grandsaert sums up the court’s benefits in the conclusion of his introductory courtroom admonition to the defendants: “If you are honest with me and the people who are trying to help you, and you give it your best effort, you will get through this, and good things will begin to happen for you once again.”