On Wednesday, the NYC Council held a hearing on NYC's Veterans Treatment Courts in City Hall's Committee Room. Aynisa Leonardo, an experienced clinician who has served veterans for more than eight years, and who also has extensive experience with clients in the Veterans Treatment Courts operating in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, testified on behalf of the NYC Veterans Alliance, and represented your responses thus far on the 2015 Survey of NYC Veterans Priorities. It was a long, but important hearing, and Aynisa followed testimony by a number of judges and government officials, to include Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and a U.S. Army veteran asked to read the statement of Public Advocate Letitia James in support of establishing a Veterans Treatment Court in Manhattan.
Below is Aynisa's testimony:
Testimony by Aynisa Leonardo
Member and Partner, NYC Veterans Alliance Working Group
Hearing on Evaluating the City’s Veterans Treatment Courts
NYC Council Committee on Veterans
NYC Council Committee on Courts and Legal Services
NYC Council Committee on Mental Health
February 25, 2015
My name is Aynisa Leonardo, and I represent a newly formed grassroots organization called the NYC Veterans Alliance. I am a licensed art therapist and have worked with veterans and military families in clinical practice in the NYC Metro area for more than eight years. My work has included providing support to military families as well as inpatient, integrated behavioral health treatment for service members and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI), acute suicidal thoughts and behaviors, and substance misuse disorders. In addition to my clinical practice, I also lead community programming to create local opportunities for veterans and military families to connect with each other and civilians in New York City.
I’ve learned through my work that most veterans successfully transition from their wartime service back into civilian life, but I’ve also seen firsthand that a significant number need help either because of the traumas they’ve experienced or because their family and social support systems weren’t sufficient to steady them. Unfortunately, a number of these veterans wind up falling into the criminal justice system for mostly misdemeanor offenses. While it’s important that all crimes are taken seriously, it would nevertheless be an injustice for veterans who haven’t yet received the help due to them following military service-related traumas to then be left on their own in the criminal justice system. This is why we strongly encourage all New York City officials to support robust, effective, and fully functional Veterans Treatment Courts covering all five boroughs of New York City.
Earlier this month, the NYC Veterans Alliance launched a survey asking the NYC veterans community to rate their policy priorities. Aside from the Veterans Initiative at the Midtown Community Court, with its catchment area largely based around Times Square, we asked respondents to prioritize establishing a borough-wide Veterans Treatment Court in Manhattan to refer veterans committing offenses to treatment rather than prison, like the Veterans Treatment Courts currently operating in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, and planned for Staten Island. The survey is open through the end of February, and we still have responses coming in. Yet even with these preliminary results, responses thus far from our community have overwhelmingly favored having Veterans Courts in all five boroughs:
- Of more than 400 survey respondents, 87% say establishing a Veterans Treatment Court in Manhattan is either “essential” or “very important.” Another 10% call this “moderately important.”
- This equates to 97% of respondents thus far saying that establishing a Veterans Treatment Court in Manhattan is important to them.
We fully support the Manhattan Borough President’s and the Public Advocate’s call for a Veterans Treatment Court in Manhattan. Additionally, we strongly recommend that City officials take a holistic approach to Veterans Treatment Courts by ensuring all veterans across the City experience the same measure of justice and access to treatment, no matter which borough. We therefore offer the following six recommendations:
- Veterans Treatment Courts must not only be present across all five boroughs, they must all consistently strive to follow the best practices and quality outcomes of Veterans Treatment Courts across New York State and around the country. Currently, existing Veterans Treatment Courts in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx differ significantly in their approaches.
- Veterans Treatment Courts must involve judges and staff who have a basic understanding of military culture and the military-specific challenges of veterans coming into their courtroom, to include post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, trauma-related substance misuse, and military sexual trauma. Judges and staff must also have a basic familiarity with services offered by the Veterans Health Administration, the Veterans Benefits Administration, and services available to veterans of any era or discharge status offered by veteran service organizations and other health services based in New York City. We believe the City Council committees here today, in conjunction with MOVA, are capable of working toward addressing this to ensure consistency in the quality of Veterans Treatment Courts across the boroughs.
- Veterans Treatment Courts must hold veterans cases on a separate docket, and with a Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) specialist from the Veterans Health Administration present. This is not currently happening on a consistent basis. For example, the Bronx court at times intermixes veterans’ cases with non-veterans, thereby losing its coherent treatment-based approach.
- Veterans Treatment Courts must be understood and implemented as trauma-informed, treatment-based systems that rely not only on judges and their staff, but also on the involvement of VJOs and other VA officials, licensed clinicians in the community, community-based treatment programs, benefits specialists from veteran service organizations, and a robust veteran peer mentoring program. These critical networks can be maintained and kept accountable through regular stakeholder meetings and communication with local Community Boards and the Police precincts.
- An ombudsman or similar functional entity should be established to take in and manage input and complaints from those treated by or working within the Veterans Treatment Courts to ensure treatments and longevity of contracts are just, appropriate, and consistent across the City’s Veterans Treatment Courts.
- Best practices should be solicited, reviewed, and implemented on an annual basis according to data and studies drawn from Veterans Treatment Courts in New York State and nationwide.
On behalf of the NYC Veterans Alliance, I thank you for this opportunity to speak today. Pending your questions, this concludes my testimony.