HICKORY, N.C. (AP) — Judges typically frown upon applause in their courtrooms. And the people appearing before those judges typically do not select a treat once the hearing has concluded.
The Catawba County Veterans Treatment Court is unlike most courts.
When Shane Parris, 34, came up for his court appearance, there was clapping from the gallery and the attorneys — including the prosecuting attorney — without any reprimand from Judge David Aycock.
Parris was invited to take his choice of snack from a box filled with candy bars and packs of crackers before he was excused. Between the clapping and the candy, Aycock and Parris discussed the classes he was taking.
Aycock congratulated Parris on his sobriety — 73 days at the time of the court appearance. Parris received a certificate noting his completion of the first phase of the treatment court program. “First one of these I’ve handed out in this program,” Aycock said.
Parris’ voice broke as he talked about the impact the treatment court was having in his life. “Because of this program, my brother asked me to be my nephew’s godfather. So I got to be my nephew’s godfather at church,” Parris said.
He added: “It wouldn’t have happened six months ago. It wouldn’t have happened 100 days ago. So I wouldn’t have that if it wasn’t for the people in this room genuinely caring about me. So I appreciate it.”
I’m just glad I can be the person I know I am again
The Catawba County Veterans Treatment Court was established this spring using a $339,000 federal grant. Catawba County is one of at least five counties in the state with a treatment court program.
The court functions as a type of diversion program in which veterans charged with low-level crimes — Class H felonies and below — can undergo a 16-to-24-month process of treating substance abuse and mental health issues in the hope of getting the charges either dismissed or reduced.
Jared Weaver, 28, the coordinator of the treatment court, said the services involved in the program are free and offered through agencies such as The Cognitive Connection in Hickory.
The District Attorney’s Office assesses potential participants to see who can take part in the program. Weaver said the DA’s Office is willing to take service members who received dishonorable or other-than-honorable discharges, though prosecutors do look at the reasons for the discharge and weigh if the person will be accepted.
Through the program, veterans can access resources to help them upgrade their discharges where possible, Weaver added.
He describes the treatment court as a “ground-up” program that can assist participants in areas ranging from employment to health care.
The court itself establishes a community of veterans. A majority of people administering the program, including Weaver, Aycock and Assistant District Attorney Lance Sigmon, are veterans. “It gives these individuals a sense of care because people actually are here to help you and volunteer their time, and you’re not alone,” Weaver said.
One way the program creates the feeling of community is the relationship between program participants and veterans outside the program who serve as mentors.
Michael Cloy, 63, the mentorship coordinator for the program, said mentors work to establish a relationship based on trust to help veterans complete the requirements of the program.
“We’re not a spy, and we’re not someone who tells the judge what’s going on,” Cloy said. “If they do something the judge needs to know about or the defense attorney or prosecuting attorney needs to know about, we get the veteran to tell them. We’re not snitches.”
He added: “We never violate that trust (with the program participant), but we also don’t violate the judicial process. We honor it, and we’re trying to get them to honor it, as well.”
Though the program is only a few months old, the changes it has made in the lives of people like Shane Parris are evident.
Parris is a Marine Corps veteran. He decided to join the Marines while watching the twin towers fall on 9/11. He was sitting in his freshman history class.
During his time in service, Parris worked in logistics, transporting satellite equipment around the world in support of combat troops. He hoped to make a career in the military. Parris’ career was cut short, however, when he was discharged under the policy forbidding openly gay people from serving.
The discharge was honorable but it prevented him from re-enlisting, a blow for a man who speaks with reverence when he talks about the Marine Corps.
Parris was discharged less than a year before the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was lifted. In the years after his discharge, Parris turned to drugs and alcohol to deal with problems in his personal life.
“In my head, government didn’t want me because of who I was,” Parris said. “Why would anybody else? And that was a struggle for me. I mean, it ate at me for a long time.”
In the Veterans Treatment Court, Parris has been able to regain his sense of self. “I was talking to my mom yesterday, and she said she finally had her son back, which broke my heart,” Parris said. “I’m just glad I can be the person I know I am again.”
Brotherhood of ‘Knuckleheads’
Tommy Todd was the second person to receive a certificate from Aycock signifying completion of the first phase.
Like Parris, Todd, 47, is a Marine veteran. He found his way into the treatment program because of some bad decisions he attributed to his drinking problem. On the day he formally graduated to phase two, he was 98 days sober.
Todd said the program helped by giving him constructive activities to fill his time. One way Todd spends his days now is finding ways to give back. He is currently spearheading a drive to collect coats for needy veterans. Todd is also looking forward to a time when he completes the program and will be able to serve as a mentor to a new group of people in the program.
Another way the program has helped Todd: It’s allowed him to develop camaraderie with the other people in the program whom he affectionately calls “knuckleheads.”
“At the end of the day, I’ve met three probably now lifelong friends through a shitty circumstance, and we all kind of have each other’s back and we make sure that we hold each other accountable,” Todd said.