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Recommendations for the Use of Mentor Programs in Veteran Treatment Courts

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Diana Moga
April 21, 2019

Veteran treatment courts have been active since 2008, when Judge Robert Russel extended his experience in holding mental health and drug treatment courts to the military veteran population of Buffalo, New York. Today, over 114 jurisdictions nationwide hold veteran treatment courts. Each jurisdiction maintains its own criteria for veteran eligibility and treatment approaches.  One dimension of the treatment approach is veteran-to-veteran mentorship. However, how a mentor program is established has much to do with its ultimate success or failure. Across academic domains, the emphasis on trust between mentor and mentee is key. And for all the effort that launching a mentor program implies, few results will show if certain criteria are not met. Best practices and recommendations found in other domains can help veteran treatment courts incorporate mentor programs within their larger treatment paradigm. 

A study from the Naval War College Review is helpful in shedding light on defining types of mentor relationships. Informal mentoring relationships emerge organically through regular, voluntary interactions and without external intervention. In contrast, Formal mentoring relationships are initiated by an organization, usually by formal assignment of mentor and mentee, and bounded by strict, top-down guidelines. In establishing a formal mentoring framework, veteran treatment courts can apply best practices found in the military domain.

First, a formal mentorship program must have an inherent master strategy that accounts for organizational dynamics and culture, hierarchical structures, traditions, resources and mentoring objectives. A mentor program for veterans should consider factors such as age, gender, service branch and military rank when matching mentors and mentees. Second, a formal mentoring program should facilitate a sense of choice for the mentor and mentee. Participants report better outcomes when they feel they have a choice in choosing a mentor/mentee. Third, a mentor program must have a vetting process for mentors based on interpersonal skills, communication, empathy, listening and emotional intelligence. Finally, a formal mentor program should incorporate a quality mentor training program. Veteran treatment courts need not assume that people who volunteer to mentor have the tools to do so.

Support to veteran treatment courts can be found via Justice for Vets, a division of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. As an organization, Justice for Vets has dedicated itself to supporting the proliferation of veteran treatment courts by offering training for new courts, and advanced training and technical help to established courts. For the mentorship piece, Justice for Vets hosts an annual mentors boot-camp training program. The Justice for Vets National Mentor Corps webpage states that volunteer veterans, “Encourage, engage and empower their fellow veterans to change their lives.”

Although mentoring programs have become commonplace in many domains, the implementation of mentor programs in specialized courts can be viewed as something of an innovation with varying degrees of success. An academic survey of veteran treatment courts found that while 77 percent of courts reported having a mentor component as part of their program, only 11.3 percent required regular meetings with veteran mentors. 

One reason it might be difficult to implement a formal mentoring program is that the mentoring program itself will, at least at first, be imperfectly designed. As with any technological innovation, court staff and administrators of a nascent mentoring program will discover dead-ends and kinks in the mentor program design, which will require patience and resilience to correct. The second issue is that a formal mentoring program will require that court staff assume new responsibilities, such as vetting, coordinating and training volunteers. These tasks will require developing a new knowledgebase on veterans’ organizations and potential mentor pools. The third issue is that implementing a formal mentorship program would be time consuming. Particularly at the outset, establishing a formal mentoring program as defined by top-down guidelines would require a large investment of time to design, implement, monitor, adjust, and execute the program. Based on the best practices recommended and these potential stumbling blocks, some veteran treatment courts may not have the staff to take on the added demands of incorporating a formal mentoring program.

On the Justice for Vets training webpage, Justice for Vets calls itself a, “National training and technical assistance provider… within the Office of Justice Programs at the United States Department of Justice.” In other words, it’s the national go-to organization for veterans’ courts. As part of implementation training, Justice for Vets can play a role in helping courts determine whether incorporating a mentor program would be a good fit for their specific program. Veteran-to-veteran mentorship is just one aspect in the veteran treatment court rehabilitation approach, yet the demands of a formal mentor program could detract court staff and administrators from other treatment and services that could better serve veterans.

Author: Diana Moga is a master’s student of public administration at University of Houston. She holds a bachelor’s in international relations from the United States Naval Academy and currently serves as a in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. Follow her on Twitter: @dianaxmoga

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