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Veterans First: Innovations in Jail Diversion
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The Veterans First Jail Diversion Program in Rio Rancho, New Mexico gives veterans an opportunity to enter a supervision program providing clinical support, intensive case management, support from peer specialists, and housing support. All employees in the program are veterans. This program provides vital support for veterans who often struggle to reintegrate into their communities and families, providing therapeutic options over incarceration.
Veterans First: Innovations in Jail Diversion

 

The Veterans First Jail Diversion Program is funded through a grant from SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services’ Jail Diversion and Trauma Recovery Program-Priority to Veterans.

Last year, John* was arrested on a domestic violence charge and was assessed in the court system. Like many other veterans, he suffers from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of his deployments.

John’s circumstances meant he was eligible to be part of a pilot program in Rio Rancho, New Mexico called The Veterans First Jail Diversion Program. John is one of forty-seven people with trauma spectrum disorders in this program, and he is the first to graduate.

The program utilizes evidence-based practices in serving both veterans and their families, including: Seeking Safety; Cognitive Processing Therapy (a treatment similar to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy); Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR); and Exposure Therapy.

The Veterans First Jail Diversion Program is funded through the Center for Mental Health Services’ Jail Diversion and Trauma Recovery Program-Priority to Veterans. It seeks to give veterans an opportunity to enter a supervision program providing clinical support, intensive case management, support from peer specialists, and housing support.

“The impetus behind developing this program,” explains Chris Burmeister, the grant administrator and one of the co-founders of New Mexico Veteran and Family Support Services (VFSS), “is to ensure that we have the appropriate services to address trauma.”

“Veterans are returning from combat with a higher risk of suicide and PTSD. Many soldiers are being deployed up to eight times, and when they return, often struggle with substance use, legal troubles, and domestic violence in addition to mental illness, physical injuries, and PTSD. There have been some very heartbreaking stories in the news,” shares Chris.

For family members, trauma responses can be extremely confusing. Programs like VFSS that provide support to families are a critical component to helping veterans heal in conjunction with their families. “We encounter children who act out, couples with relationship challenges. We often have family members who come in first saying, ‘I don’t know what is going on with my partner. He is waking up in the middle of the night. He is angry, and I don’t know how to help him,’” says Chris.

But perhaps one of the biggest challenges Chris has encountered in this work is the trouble that many veterans have with relating to service providers who do not understand military culture. Using military language and values is critical in relating to veterans who are in treatment and who are working to reintegrate into their communities. For that reason, all of the program’s peer specialists are veterans themselves.

For example, the therapist who serves John worked with the Army as a military contractor overseas. She has served veterans overseas and has a family history of military involvement. It is that connection that has allowed her to understand and relate to John and other veterans on a level that supports growth and development. This connection has helped John create sustainable change in his life. Even though he has graduated from the program, he has elected to remain in treatment because it has served him so well. And now, he is able to work in and be a part of the community.

Twelve states are funded by the grant program, which includes a handbook that is adapted for each population that they serve. This commitment to cultural competence is a strong component of the program. There are plans to establish relationships with tribal courts for jail diversion in the future. A large percentage of Native Americans serve in the military, and the program is in the process of building relationships with experts who understand the appropriate interventions and cultural protocols. For instance, they are planning to engage healers and the Native American community to provide traditional approaches to care.

The first pilot is in Rio Rancho and there are plans to expand to Farmington, New Mexico. “Our goal is not simply expansion, but sustainability,” shares Chris. The program’s partners include Presbyterian Medical Services, The University of New Mexico, the 13th Judicial Court, the 2nd Judicial Court, Partners in Wellness, and the New Mexico Department of Veterans' Services. It also works closely with VFSS.

*Not his real name. His name has been changed to protect his privacy.

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