Miami-Dade County

New veterans court opens in Miami-Dade

Michael Schmeke of the U.S. Army and members of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court of Florida attend a ceremony officially marking the creation of a Miami-Dade veterans court on Friday, January 13, 2017.
Michael Schmeke of the U.S. Army and members of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court of Florida attend a ceremony officially marking the creation of a Miami-Dade veterans court on Friday, January 13, 2017. rkoltun@miamiherald.com

Former U.S. Army soldier Elliot Lovette can trace his mental breakdowns — years of flashbacks, panic attacks and hallucinations — to the day a roadside bomb in 2004 ripped apart his Humvee during a patrol in Iraq.

Struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and drugs eventually landed him in a Miami jail, charged with fighting a police officer during a breakdown in October 2015.

But Lovette got back on track when he entered a fledgling program designed to help Miami-Dade’s large veteran population, hooking them up with specialized treatment, substance abuse rehab and even mentoring from fellow former members of the military.

Earlier this month, Miami-Dade prosecutors officially dropped the charges against the 35-year-old after he completed the yearlong program.

On Friday, Lovette celebrated the occasion on a grander stage, joined by judges, lawyers, mental-health professionals and the head of Miami’s Veterans Affairs healthcare office as they officially marked the formal creation of a Miami-Dade veterans court.

“This program will help a lot of other veterans, I was just one of the first,” said Lovette, who is now sober and studying engineering at Miami Dade College.

The official creation of the court, years in the making but celebrated Friday in a long-planned ceremony, came as mental-health treatment for veterans has again been thrust into the spotlight, for very tragic reasons.

The event took place one week after former Army soldier Esteban Santiago shot 11 people at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, killing five. An Iraq veteran, Santiago suffered from delusions and a deteriorating mental state; two months earlier, he walked into an Alaska FBI office to complain about voices in his head and the government forcing him to watch terrorist propaganda.

And just weeks before the shooting, Santiago was arrested for a domestic-violence case. He did not earn a conviction, but it remains unclear what, if any, treatment he had while under court supervision in Alaska.

Officials who spoke at Friday’s event in Miami did not mention it in their remarks, but the shooting weighed on their minds nevertheless.

“The shooting underscores that we need to do something more progressive, more innovative, more preventative for our veterans,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said afterward. “We can help prevent such a catastrophe.”

Scores of people packed a Miami-Dade court on Friday to celebrate the new program, including Public Defender Carlos Martinez, Chief Judge Bertila Soto, a host of other black-robed judges, several elected officials, mental-health professionals and many veterans.

The ceremony served up plenty of military pageantry. Larry Chester, a Miami-Dade court bailiff and former Marine, led the Pledge of Allegiance before a military color guard presented flags for the singing of the national anthem.

Even on hand was Marine Brigadier General Paul Rock, of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command.

“Serving in our nation’s military is not for the faint of heart and sometimes, the effects of the life-changing experiences during military service are not as easily taken off and hung up like the uniform is,” Rock told the crowded courtroom.

Said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez, who will preside over the new court: “Veterans are unique and special individuals. Their experiences can’t be felt or understood by all of us.”

The effort is part of a growing nationwide movement of courts designated specifically for veterans, allowing them to avoid jail or prison for generally nonviolent offenses by entering intense court-monitored drug rehabilitation. The concept is an extension of drug court, which first started in Miami more than two decades ago.

The program is a reboot of a similar small-scale program that started in 2011 in Miami-Dade.

For the past year, as a way to get the new project off the ground, a veterans “track” has existed as part of Miami-Dade’s mental-health court. That’s the program that helped Lovette, the former soldier who attended the ceremony.

A U.S. Department of Justice grant for $350,000 helped to get the bigger program off the ground.

The court will convene once a month, for now, but will likely grow to once a week. For now, between 30 and 40 veterans are on the docket.

They are identified, first, by police officers filing arrest reports — the cops are now required to ask defendants if they are military veterans. That allows court officials to identify defendants who may need help from the Veterans Administration, which can provide substance abuse treatment, vocational training and housing.

The grant also helped pay for a veterans liaison staffer, stationed at the jail, to help identify veterans and refer them to services within hours of their arrest.

“Veterans court is not about special treatment,” said Paul Russo, the head of the Miami’s VA healthcare system. “It’s providing the right treatment.”

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