Forest Hensley just completed a five-phase program through Tampa's Veterans Treatment Court. The former Marine was ordered to participate in substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, and community service after he was arrested for driving under the influence in 2018.
But Hensley, 33, wasn't able to celebrate the completion of the program the way other veterans have.
Rather than family and friends packing into a courtroom to cheer him as a judge led a graduation ceremony, Hensley's big moment happened quietly on Zoom.
"I was looking forward to going and standing in front of a judge this time because I knew I was doing what I was supposed to be doing," said Hensley. "The human contact portion of [the pandemic] has been really rough."
Hensley is among hundreds of veterans whose cases in Veterans Treatment Courts were affected by the pandemic. Those courts have become common across the country, serving a growing number of former service members. The courts are designed to steer veterans into rehabilitation and treatment - rather than prison - if they run into trouble with the law.
Because the courts typically center on in-person interaction, many temporarily shut down when the pandemic began. Some have moved to virtual court sessions and treatments.
For Hensley, the change meant a longer wait before he could demonstrate to the judge he was ready to graduate the program. He said the online treatment wasn't always easy, but he pushed forward with his recovery.
"It started to become very automatic for me to live a sober, healthy lifestyle," said Hensley. "I'm also a very technological kind of guy, I like computers, phones, tablets and stuff like that, so integrating Zoom meetings into my life has been a lot easier."
The Tampa court resumed virtually in June, and a month later, Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Michael Scionti graduated Hensley from the program during a virtual docket where he also reviewed dozens of other veterans' cases. He promised Hensley that when it was safe to host an in-person ceremony again, he would get the fanfare he deserved, along with a minted coin traditionally given to all graduating vets to commemorate their achievement.
Some veterans are struggling
Hensley is one of the court's many success stories. The Tampa court has reported single-digit recidivism rates since 2017.
But during the same virtual court session, Judge Scionti heard from other vets who were struggling.
They said the coronavirus was taking a toll on their mental health, causing financial problems, and making it hard to make required appointments. Others admitted using drugs and alcohol again.
Scionti, who is also a lieutenant colonel and commands a unit within the Army Reserves' Judge Advocate General Corps, ordered more supervision for those who slipped up. But he said he knows he has to be flexible during this challenging time.
"You won't find me putting somebody in jail because they have relapsed because of their addition," Scionti said. "I need them to be honest, I need them to trust the court."
The veterans in Scionti's court are helped by a whole team of people, who in addition to providing health care also help vets secure jobs, housing, and VA benefits.
In a rare example of a silver lining to the coronavirus, one of those community partners hired some veterans in the program, including Hensley, to help manage one of the county's COVID-19 isolation centers.
Other veterans volunteer as mentors to help support vets through their recovery and hold them accountable if they lose their way.
Marine Corps veteran Camellia Simmons, 38, has been a mentor for the past year. She previously went through the program herself.
"I've been homeless, without a job, battling substance abuse and depression," she said. "It can be a struggle, especially when you feel like you're in it by yourself, and that's why I think it's important to have a mentor program because it's kind of like a battle buddy."
Simmons has supported several battle buddies since becoming a mentor, but said she had to work a little harder to make sure the veteran she's helping now is doing okay because of the pandemic.
Simmons no longer can see her regularly and pick up on body language if there are issues she isn't letting on. Instead, Simmons tries to get her on the phone to at least get a sense of her tone.
"We're all so quick to text, but just hearing their voice really helps," said Simmons.
Retired Army Col. DJ Reyes, the mentor coordinator, said going virtual has challenged the relationship component of the court, but said at least it keeps people connected.
"It's our new normal, it's very dynamic, but I think we're starting to feel comfortable the more and more we do it," he said.
Reyes said most vets have adapted to virtual court, but others lack technology. Leaders have had to think of creative ways to stay in touch.
He said they've told vets who don't have their own Internet access to go to a public library and use their allotted time on a free computer to dial into Zoom meetings and telehealth appointments.
In an even more extreme case, mentors had to track down one veteran, who due to financial problems no longer had a cell phone, through a friend they had contact information for.
Reyes said the court recently started using community donations to buy smartphones with basic plans for vets in need of a way to communicate virtually.
That highlights one of the challenges Reyes said veterans treatment courts across the country face: funding.
Most rely on a combination of state and local dollars, fundraising, and volunteers to stay afloat. And that was before the pandemic put future budgets in question.
Reyes said he's fairly confident the Tampa court, which is one of the largest in the country, will be okay, but he said he's concerned about smaller courts that constantly have to battle for funding.
Reyes is also on the board of the National Veterans Court Alliance and helped lobby Congress for federal aid.
"This is a case where we want big brother to get involved because this is a national problem," he said.
Congress recently passed the Veterans Treatment Court Coordination Act, which will establish a program within the Department of Justice to provide grants, training, and technical assistance to new and existing courts. The Department of Veterans Affairs will help coordinate.
"To be able to provide technology so that these cases can be followed more closely than they would be otherwise, I think is a big component," said U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) who sponsored the bill.
Congress allocated about $30 million for veteran's courts nationally, which Col. Reyes said likely won't come out to much once divided up. But he said every dollar counts as courts work to make it through the pandemic.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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