LEHIGH COUNTY SEES ITS VETERANS’ MENTOR PROGRAM AS A SUCCESS
Steve Luksa, First Assistant District Attorney for Lehigh County, spoke to the Council on 20 June at its business meeting about the District Attorney’s Veterans’ Mentor Program. Other program team members present with him were: Debbie Garlicki, Executive Aide (Public Relations), DA’s Office; Brenda Trayes, Administrative Assistant, DA’s Office; Shane Schmeckenbecker, Probation Officer II; and Maureen McManus, Executive Director of Lehigh Valley Pretrial Services
According to Mr. Luksa, the one-year old, Veterans’ Mentor Program (whose motto is “Leave no veteran behind.”) started out as part of Team MISA (Mental Illness and Substance Abuse), now in its seventh year and an effort which has reduced cost and recidivism while still protecting the community. An increasing number of veterans were using the that program, but there was no way to address treating them uniquely (as he believed they should be). Hence the program was created.
The veterans use of the program is voluntary. Veterans are identified and assessed, told about the program, asked to participate, and then a holistic model is applied to help them once they enroll. For instance, a drug and alcohol assessment occurs, connections to the VA are made (ostensibly through the County Director of Veterans Affairs), movement through the court system is hastened, and a mentor is assigned. Generally, most clients are found at ‘Central Booking’ where Pretrial Services and DA staffs do the informing. However, all county judges and magistrates are aware of the program and have the necessary application forms. “But ultimately, it is the veteran who must ask for help …,” said Mr. Luksa.
He also stated the mentors have proven invaluable. The program has had incredible success in matching them up with clients, for bonding has occurred. The mentors have gone as far as helping some find jobs, for example. They also act as a “stern voice” when needed. There are some rules with which to comply, but the process is mainly one of a one-to-one relationship with a supporting committee from Lehigh County government solving problems the mentor brings to them.
To date, 18 mentors have been selected from the 45 veterans who have applied. Of those, 14 are currently fully trained. Family Answers, Inc. does the training. Mr. Luksa mentioned, a past criminal record does not necessarily zero one out as mentor. A mentor who has been an uncontrolled alcoholic helping another who has alcohol problems can be an ideal situation. The county continues to seek additional mentors and at the meeting he put out the call for them. He also said others may refer to them a veteran needing assistance.
Forty-one veterans have applied to use the program. Some have been turned down. For example, a dishonorably discharged individual will not get a mentor. There has been a 90% success rate according to Mr. Luksa. The question was asked about veterans demographics. No good answer was given. It is not formally tracked, but it seems to be over a broad age range of veterans, slanting towards younger veterans and the mentors seem to slant toward an older age range demographic.
He noted that the Veterans’ Mentor Program is not a complete diversion program, however. Indeed, it deals parolees in addition to probationers and parolees. He said, “It is more about modified sentences, more about doing what is appropriate. It is not a free pass.” He acknowledged that Philadelphia uses a veterans diversion court system, unlike Lehigh County. He considers such courts are sterile environments, and said, “No specific judge is assigned to deal with the veteran.” Considering the small numbers assisted, it would not justify the financing involved. [Editor’s Note: Lehigh County is known to be resistant to the idea of specialty courts in general.] Despite having no specific court for veterans, Luksa remarked “Lehigh County has more mentors than any other county in Pennsylvania. Philly only has five, for all its work. No one is paid; no budget except for team training exists.”
They have found the VA system complex and unwieldy. When they cannot get it to work (there have been instances), they use county resources. He also rued the loss of Veterans Sanctuary (see article below) which had done good work for the program.
When asked about the training of police as has been done in Philadelphia to improve response and referral, the county while aware of the intercept model, has only just begun to start a Crisis Intercept Team dialogue with the Allentown and Whitehall police departments.
When asked if he knew if Northampton County had plans for the same or had such a program, the answer was no.
He concluded by saying they are willing “…to take the show on the road if asked …” to explain the program to interested organizations and to encourage its use.
HEALTHCARE IN OUR COMMUNITY
Eric Johnson conducted our sixth meeting on 14 June with our hospital partners and other service providers. We are now gearing up for the 19 July Top Level Executive luncheon meeting where we will update them on Healthcare in Our Community and secure their cooperation for near term actions. All the CEO’s of those participating with us – and that includes all the hospital networks in the Valley – will be there.
A media alert will go out soon. The initial assessment of the situation has been completed. We have also outreached to the Surgeon General of the Air Force for some assistance as he understands what “Joining Forces” can truly mean.
The current players are Sacred Heart, St. Luke’s, Lehigh Valley Hospital, Good Shepherd, Westfield Hospital, Treatment Trends, Victory House, and Heartland Hospice and Coordinated Health.
The Chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee will be meeting with Pat DiLuzio, our committee chair, and Tom Walker of Lehigh County Conference of Churches on 27 June to discuss homelessness ventures. Just recently we provided matching funds to help Victory House repair their air conditioning system.
As reported last time, Pat diLuzio introduced a new business plan for our homelessness program. It is in for review by our committee. We believe Lehigh Valley veterans need more attention in this area and no one, to include the VA, has fully assessed how best to help locally. It has three key goals:
- Create and implement a Media Plan
- Increase LVMAC funding and support
- Increase collaboration with the local community, to include the Department of Veterans Affairs
VETERANS SANCTUARY CLOSURE
Robert Csandl spoke about the recent closure of the Veterans Sanctuary program (It has also been reported upon in a previous LVMAC Tidbits article). The operation has ceased and the staff has been let go due to lack of paid referrals. He thanked all for their past support and was concerned about their disappointment.
However, in just ten months of operation, Veterans Sanctuary incurred an operating deficit of $459,000. As he reminded us, there were enough referrals. It’s just that the money which should have been attached to them did not come. Csandl commented, “The system got ‘snafued’ in bureaucracies that could not play with one another and not just the VA, though the lion’s share of referrals came from Coatesville and Lebanon VA Medical Centers.”
He went onto say that every veteran is a citizen of a county and Pennsylvania first, then a veteran. “Sending them to the VA as their only option robs them of their choices. Deference to the VA takes their choices [and rights of citizenship] away.” he stated and remarked further that veterans need to stand shoulder to shoulder to knock down such barriers to proper treatment.
He concluded by saying Treatment Trends is reviewing its options to rebirth Veterans Sanctuary under a different business model. The intention is still to be “veterans centric.”
Dave Newton has put JOVE on a two week hiatus. We need to lick the veterans outreach issue, as I have commented upon before. We’ll probably have to go on a major advertising campaign.
Phil Hublitz and his committee are wrapping up the scholarship application reviews and will make a recommendation to the VAC in July.
COMMUNITY EDUCATIONAL OUTREACH
Robin Carmody has taken the lead on our new Community Educational Outreach initiative and has developed a mission statement for the program to keep us focused, a first step. Now she is querying others, to include the National Guard, on existent programs that might be of use to the school communities. As we reported last time, we are planning to start small, with the elementary schools in the Northwestern Lehigh School District being used for a pilot test. If you like to join this effort because you have a concern for our school children, please contact Robin. Cordelia Miller, formerly of the Red Cross, has.
State Senate Bill 1531, which would amend Titles 51 (Military Affairs) and 75 (Vehicles) of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes and would establish a Pennsylvania Veterans Trust Fund and also identify a veteran as a veteran on his/her vehicle license registration, was introduced by Sen. Baker on 29 May and is currently in the Appropriations Committee as of 13 June.
While perhaps a flawed bill (state legislative staffing practices bear improvement in regards to veterans bills), it is nevertheless the most significant piece of veterans legislation proposed in this state for quite some time. Its importance is even greater than the ballyhooed Act 66 program of 2007 (which pays selected veterans service organizations to provide benefits/claims officers for the state). The bill would allow the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to circumvent the appropriations process (often disconnected from the reality of needs of veterans) by allowing it to solicit funds in support of veterans programs operated by others and the Act 66 program.
The hope is it will be used to support those who do real ‘dig-in-the-dirt’ work for veterans in their communities, such as the Philadelphia Multiservice Education Center , the Western Leadership Conference, Impact Services, the Victory House of the Lehigh Valley, and formerly, Veterans Sanctuary.
Less apparent will be the benefit of indicating veterans status on one’s drivers license, but it too will prove more meaningful than the probable origin of the effort. Its significance will not be as a means of identification to obtain discounts from businesses such as Lowes and Home Depot, but in quickly identifying veterans for government assistance and improving crisis interventions.
Therefore, we encourage support of this bill.
Processing of Retroactive Agent Orange Claims Nearly Complete: The Department of Veterans Affairs recently announced that nearly 230,000 claims have already been processed for the three newest Agent-Orange related conditions through June 2012, including over 150,000 claims required to be adjudicated under the order of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in Nehmer v. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The “near completion” of these complex Nehmer claims enables them to redirect 1,200 employees who were dedicated to reviewing the Agent Orange cases toward addressing the current backlog of disability claims. We think a more profound change in the claims processing system is required than just the allocation of manpower.
Fiduciary Reform Act of 2012 proposed: The VA is facing reform of its Fiduciary program. It’s a surprise to us, since we had thought it well run. A recent Hearst newspapers report, based upon a review of past prosecutions and decades of audits, revealed that “inveterate gamblers, convicted criminals, the bankrupt and the mentally ill were among those approved by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – and often paid commissions – to manage money or oversee entire estates for disabled veterans.” The newspaper investigation revealed some of the largest scams – conspiracies to steal $900,000 to $2 million in assets from disabled vets in Texas, Minnesota and Tennessee — went on for more than a decade. What has happened in Pennsylvania is unknown. Ironically, it seems some veterans first learned of the swindles from reporters, not the VA.
Consequently on 12 June, Representative Bill Johnson of Ohio, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, introduced Veterans Fiduciary Reform Act of 2012 (H.R. 5948).
20 Junel 2012