Testimony by David Falcon, Staff Attorney for Veterans Legal Assistance Project, Before the New York City Council Committee on Committees on Veterans, Courts and Legal Services, and Mental Health
Oversight – Evaluating the City’s Veterans Treatment Courts
February 25, 2015
Chairs Ulrich, Lancman and Cohen, Council Members, and staff, good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to speak about the City’s Veterans Treatment Courts. My name is David Falcon and I am the Staff Attorney at the New York Legal Assistance’s Group (NYLAG)’s Veterans Legal Assistance Project, as well as a Tech Sergeant in the New York Air National Guard at the 109th. NYLAG is a nonprofit law office dedicated to providing free legal services in civil law matters to low-income New Yorkers. NYLAG serves immigrants, seniors, the homebound, families facing foreclosure, tenants facing eviction, low-income consumers, those in need of government assistance, children in need of special education, domestic violence victims, persons with disabilities, patients with chronic illness or disease, low-wage workers, members of the LGBTQ community, veterans, Holocaust survivors and others in need of free legal services.
I am pleased to testify today on the City’s Veterans Treatment Courts (VTC), an innovative program that gives many veterans the second chance they need to prevent a future of turmoil. Many combat veterans, especially those that served in Iraq and Afghanistan, return to the United States with undiagnosed Traumatic Brain Injuries or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The VTC adds an essential layer of screening for mental health and substance abuse issues for our veteran population. But, I would like to make special note that we must remember the many veterans that served during this the many conflicts of the 20th century, particularly our Vietnam era veterans. I want to emphasize the importance of this because many of these veterans have suffered the indignity of decades of indifference and lack of compassion. This is compounded by the contemporary sentiment of good will and support for our most recent generation of veterans. The VTCs can serve all veteran in need from all generations, and present future calamity, which could negatively impact the veteran’s family for generations if left unchecked.
Left untreated, and often undiagnosed, these mental health issues can severely affect a person’s ability to lead a normal life, and often cause a person to turn deeper into drugs and alcohol. While mental health and substance abuse issues are not unique to veterans, the treatment of these chronic issues within the veteran population needs to be taken very seriously. The Veterans Treatment Courts offer an important model that give veterans the opportunity to turn their lives around before a singular event puts them on a perilous road for life.
In my capacity as a Staff Attorney at NYLAG, I assist veterans with civil legal issues, such as obtaining veterans’ benefits, housing matters, access to health care and public benefits, consumer protection and advance planning. Many of the issues I run into with my clients would never come up, or would have far less severe consequences, had the veteran been given the opportunity that the VTC provides. The civil legal issues that I handle are often the direct result of untreated mental illness and substance abuse. The treatment that veterans receive while making regular appearances in Court is vital to ensuring that they are able to leave the program with the skills necessary to cope with life after service. Support from the judges and from fellow veterans mentors link veterans with the necessary counseling and substance abuse treatment. This alternative to punitive sentencing will allow for a much easier time obtaining and maintaining well-paying jobs. Graduates of the program will be less likely to require assistance from civil legal services organizations and less likely to need public benefits or city funding for eviction prevention. The VTC ensures that one mistake; especially one related to untreated mental illness caused or exacerbated by a person’s time in the service, will not ruin an entire life. While I will not go into detail, I could speak personally as a fourth generation servicemember, about the negative consequences that unchecked substance abuse and mental health issues can have on a veteran’s family.
By intervening early and giving comprehensive services through a single entity, the Veterans Treatment Courts give hundreds of veterans a second chance. Recently, the City has made great strides in increasing services to veterans. The City has supported several organizations, such as NYLAG, to reach more veterans in need. Now, the City must seize upon this opportunity to unify all five boroughs by offering Veterans Treatment Courts wherever a veteran may live. If an entire state like Alabama, with a veteran population exceeding that of our, can offer comprehensive jurisdictional coverage for their veterans, surely this City can do the same.
I hope that the City will continue to support the Veterans Treatment Courts and ensure an expansion to all five boroughs. Veterans who have served their country and risked their lives deserve the second chance opportunity that this Court can give to them.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.
David Falcon, Staff Attorney, Veterans Legal Assistance Project