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Butler County veterans court graduates 3, with growth expected in future

| Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
James G. Meacham (center) is introduced as Jeffrey A. Cunningham (left) and Todd M. McCormick make up the first graduation class for the Butler County Veterans Court on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013. The first graduation class for vets promotes sobriety, recovery, and stability. Butler County is home to about 18,000 veterans.

Butler County's veterans court has completed its first year, and officials are expecting the need for it to grow.

“We've been told to expect more and more vets coming back from Afghanistan,” said Brad Schaffer, VA Butler Healthcare's Veterans justice outreach coordinator.

Last week marked a milestone for the court, which graduated its first three veterans on Thursday.

The court works to help veterans who run afoul of the law by putting them into treatment and keeping them out of jail. The arrests, Schaffer said, are almost always tied to drug or alcohol problems. Many in the program turned to drinking and drugs as a result of traumatic brain injuries or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he said.

Jeffrey Cunningham, 47, of Butler, a Navy veteran, is among the first group of vets completing the program.

“There are numerous people here I can't possibly pay back. They saved my life over the last year,” said Cunningham, who had been drinking and was homeless.

The treatment court now has 21 people in the program.

“We want to help them this way. We owe this to people who have served the country in this way,” said Butler County Chief Judge Tim McCune, the county's former district attorney, who supervises the court.

Among the types of offenses that can steer vets into treatment court are drunken driving, simple assaults, property offenses, domestic disputes and selling small amounts of illegal drugs. Once the program has been completed, charges may be dropped or reduced. Each case is considered individually.

The four-phase program provides an intense combination of drug and alcohol treatment and a mentor. In the early phases, the veteran must make weekly appearances in court with VA staff and participate in programs designed to get them housing, work or to enroll them in school.

“Traditional courts are punitive. This is a problem-solving court. There are a lot of supportive services connected with this court,” Schaffer said.

The average age of participants is 40, though the range varies.

The program includes several Vietnam veterans who are in their 60s.

The first specialized veterans treatment court began in January 2008 in Buffalo, N.Y.

Twenty of Pennsylvania's 67 counties have established veterans courts, also including Allegheny and Fayette counties.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at rwills@tribweb.com.

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