Veterans treatment court adapts during COVID-19

  • Navy veteran Joseph Andrews, left, of Hatfield chats with Judge Laurie MacLeod and John Sullivan, one of the mentors in the Western Mass Veterans Treatment Court, following Andrews' graduation from the program at the Holyoke District Court on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Judge Laurie MacLeod presides over a graduation ceremony for two men in the Western Mass Veterans Treatment Court program at the Holyoke District Court on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Navy veteran Joseph Andrews of Hatfield talks with Judge Laurie MacLeod after graduating from the Western Mass Veterans Treatment Court in a ceremony at the Holyoke District Court on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/6/2020 1:42:47 PM

HOLYOKE — Taking the bench last Wednesday afternoon, Judge Laurie MacLeod still saw the faces of veterans enrolled in the treatment court over which she presides — though this time, it was a little different than usual.

Instead of each participant of the Western Massachusetts Veterans Treatment Court being there in person, they all checked in via Zoom videoconferencing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although courthouses across the state have been ordered closed to the public with some exceptions, technology has allowed this specialty court — which aims to reduce recidivism among veterans struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues — to continue.

“Community is very important to anybody who is going through recovery,” MacLeod said. “Any extra isolation that’s imposed upon them, which obviously is imposed by this health crisis, can really put them in a vulnerable place.”

It’s for this reason why MacLeod and the court’s team of mentors, clinicians and others raced to find ways to continue their work supporting veterans through recovery as people are ordered to stay home.

The treatment court, which began in 2015 and is based at Holyoke District Court, selects veterans who have either admitted or pleaded guilty to misdemeanor criminal charges to take part in two years of individualized treatment. While in the program, veterans begin weekly group moral recognition therapy sessions, are in a sobriety program, and are paired up with a mentor who serves as support through the process. Once a veteran graduates after 18 months, they’re still on probation for another six months.

Last week, the court’s staff met as a group on Zoom to figure out how exactly to maintain the integrity of the court session during the COVID-19 crisis, MacLeod said. The team plans on having have their normal court sessions at its normal times every Wednesday through videoconferencing so that there would still be face time among the court and the 25 participants. Approval and encouragement of a participant’s progress through recovery by the judge is an important part of the process, MacLeod said, and the videoconferencing allows this to continue.

“We don’t want them to lose the ground that they gained,” MacLeod said.

Wednesday’s first video court session went “quite well,” according to MacLeod. The court announced the graduation of three participants and promised them a celebratory event once the public health crisis subsides. Most of the participants, she said, managed to call in via Zoom, with two others calling in over speakerphone. Veterans were even helping each other adjust to the technology, MacLeod said.

Just as important as the regular court session is the weekly group therapy the veterans participate in the day they show up for court. Jim Ziemba, director of veterans justice outreach at Soldier On, runs those group therapy sessions and said it was crucial to keep them going over videoconference. 

Ziemba said he’s used FaceTime to meet individually with some of the court’s participants to go over more personal issues outside of the group session. Even before the pandemic, he said, mentors would often check in with veteran participants by phone, and this routine has not stopped.

“We wanted to maintain the support, because we love these guys,” Ziemba said. “And we all mean that when we say that to them.”

Michael Connors can be reached at 

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