Sullivan presides over state's first Vet Treatment Court
It was a particularly poignant session of Norfolk County
Veteran's Treatment Court on Tuesday, November 13 for the
defendants appearing in front of the Hon. Mary Hogan Sullivan at
Dedham District Court. Just two days following the observance of
Veterans Day, these men were there as part of their weekly mandated
appearances, but also received recognition for their service,
thanks to Sullivan.
Following each of their court-mandated appearances on this
particular Tuesday session, Sullivan asked the defendants to come
up and shake her hand so she could personally thank them for their
service. The session team -- consisting of defense attorneys,
treatment professionals, social workers, probation officials and
Veterans Affairs staff, among others - followed suit with
handshakes and applause. At least one defendant was moved to tears
by this meaningful gesture.
Sullivan presides over the first court of its kind in
Massachusetts -- a program that provides a supportive, yet
stringent program for veteran defendants. The post-disposition
court is based on the drug court model aimed at specialized
treatment services in an attempt to prevent the defendants from a
repeat encounter with the Massachusetts Criminal Justice
Massachusetts is one of a growing number of states to enlist
this Veteran's Treatment Court model. The first specialized
Veteran's Treatment Court began operation in January 2008 in
Buffalo, New York. In less than five years, 120 Veteran's Treatment
Courts are operating in 35 states, according to justiceforvets.org.
And, more than 100 additional programs are in the planning
"It takes a judge like the Honorable Mary Sullivan to get this
off the ground," said Massachusetts Bar Association Vice President
Robert W. Harnais, who practices criminal defense in Quincy.
Defendants appearing in Veteran's Treatment Court range in age
and crimes, but, as a result of their military service, all have
mental illness (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain
Injury, and others) and/or substance abuse issues that require
treatment. All of the current defendants are men. Prior to the
creation of the Veteran's Treatment Court in March, these men would
have been left to conventional processes of the Massachusetts
Criminal Justice System. Thanks to Sullivan's efforts, this
value-added program affords them the opportunity to receive mental
health, drug abuse and other critical treatment services while they
The judge begins the court session by asking the defendant how
he has progressed since his last weekly, mandated appearance. She
carefully listens to his response, and then easily and casually
inserts follow-up questions and references from information gained
from the preceding meeting with the session team. The intended
result of each dialogue with the defendant is making sure that he
stays on track with court-mandated treatment requirements while on
"The legal community is very fortunate to have a judge like Mary
Sullivan who goes well beyond what is expected of a public servant.
Her compassion and expertise is inspiring," said Martin W. Healy,
chief legal counsel and chief operating officer of the
Massachusetts Bar Association.
A jurist with more than a decade of district court experience,
including work in drug court sessions, Sullivan swiftly blends her
approaches as both a stern judge and a compassionate counselor. The
veterans seem to respond well.
She is quick to strike a connection with the various defendants,
whether it is an individual whom she has seen weekly over the last
several months or someone new to the Veteran's Treatment Court
"How snazzy you look today," she remarked to one gentleman.
"Happy birthday this week," she commented to another.
During one defendants' appearance, she lightheartedly discussed
the addition of a new kitten to his home and then followed up
offering her condolences for his mother's passing a few weeks ago
-- an update she learned from the preceding session team meeting.
She also offered encouragement by applauding his impressive 165
days of sobriety. With a counselor's tone, she told him that she
recognized that life events, like the passing of a loved one, can
often lead to revisiting an addiction. Striking a more judicial
tone, she stressed the importance of him maintaining his sobriety.
It was a sincere and emotional exchange, as were most in the Nov.
Treatment Court session.
"I know them," said Sullivan, explaining her rapport with the
veterans as a win-win.
According to Sullivan, data from drug courts indicate that
"interaction with the judge on a personal level makes a big
difference in recidivism," according the Sullivan. Drug court data
also indicate that the presence of treatment "makes all the
difference in the world," she said.
As easy as it appears to be for Sullivan to connect with each
defendant in the session, she sets the right expectations for
prospects. At the Nov. 13 session, a handcuffed defendant observed.
Sullivan addressed him directly, saying, "a lot of people find
taking the time is easier than dealing with me each week."
Following a brief dialogue with that individual, Sullivan and the
team agreed to screen the veteran that day to determine eligibility
for Veterans Affairs benefits -- a clear example of the court's
instant access to key resources.
"I don't want to sound cliché, but it saved me," said defendant
Adam Matthews, during an interview with WCVB-TV (Channel 5) that
aired in November. "It really did. I was going down a path I
wouldn't have come back from," he added.
Bringing this innovative session to Massachusetts followed
Sullivan's attendance at a national conference for drug court
professionals. There, she learned of and attended a seminar on
Veteran's Treatment Courts taking place in other states. She
recalls thinking to herself, "We need to do this."
Once she returned home, Sullivan was highly motivated. She
assembled a team of legal professionals, tracked the number of
court-involved veterans this would positively impact and applied
for a grant. As a result of receiving a scholarship to move
forward, she and her designated team traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma
for intensive training.
The result was the March 2012 launch of Norfolk County Veteran's
Treatment Court with only one veteran defendant. Now, 15 defendants
are enrolled in any of the four phases of the program. Phase I
ensures that the veterans' basic needs are being met and they are
receiving the proper treatment; Phase II includes mandated weekly
court appearances and proof of treatment; Phase III involves
appearances every other week; and Phase IV requires appearances
every three weeks.
"The aim is to have the veteran complete the program in 18
months," said Sullivan, who explains that sometimes defendants do
have "slips" that require them to increase reporting or appearance
requirements as necessary.
"We are absolutely devoted to doing this. It is important," said
Sullivan in her take-charge manner, one possibly honed growing up
the eldest of 10 siblings, serving for 11 years on the District
Court bench and raising four now grown children - including a
daughter enrolled in law school and a son in combat as a U.S.
Sullivan, who always knew that she wanted a career in law,
specifically criminal law, said "I have the best job in the
Following the Nov. 13 Veteran's Treatment Court session,
Sullivan and her team invited the veterans to enjoy a cake prepared
by the probation officer's family. The Veterans Day celebration
exemplified the team's concern for veterans who put their own lives
on the line to defend the nation's freedom and preserve the very
judicial system they now find themselves in.