Fort Benning

Summit on courts aims to improve services for military families

In an effort to better serve military families in courts across the nation, nearly 100 judges, attorneys, military officers and other court officials gathered at the National Infantry Museum & Soldier Center on Thursday to share ideas they hope will make a difference with families.

The two-day National Summit on Courts and the Military is sponsored by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges with a focus on families affected by post-traumatic stress disorder, drug abuse, juvenile delinquency, child custody and other issues.

Warner Kennon, presiding judge of the Juvenile Courts of the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit, said 10 to 15 percent of the court cases are connected to military families.

“I think in the past, civilian courts and civilian judges and even the military have been reluctant for us to work together,” said Kennon, who also is chairman of the Military Committee of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. “I think if we can do that, we can have a much better outcome.”

After multiple deployments, Kennon said the husband and sometimes the wife are involved with issues of abuse, drugs and PTSD. The family problems spill over onto children who commit juvenile acts and there was no infrastructure in place to handle that. Three years ago, Kennon teamed up with Maj. Evan Seamone, an officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Office at Fort Benning to work on an Memorandum of Agreement to handle some of the cases at Fort Benning in local courts.

In the six county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit, soldiers and families are able to use resources at Drug Court, Mental Health Court and Veterans Court. A goal of the summit is to introduce the practices to other cities across the nation.

“We are going to try to isolate the issues and come up with solutions, then take it across the country to Norfolk, Va., and other places that have bases,” Kennon said.

There are some exceptions on whether the Columbus court may serve some soldiers and juvenile cases.

“If there is substantial property damage on a federal base, they want to deal with it themselves,” Kennon said. “The child is most likely to receive consequences through the federal system. Another example probably would be spousal abuse. If you have a soldier that has been a repeat offender, they are less likely to let you handle that in Veterans Court or outside the base, especially if that occurred before they entered the military.”

Seamone said the summit calls attention to better communication between military and local courts.

“It is all interconnected,” he said of the two. “I think the family, juvenile courts and the military should have a better understanding of recognizing how the systems relate to one another and how they can help each other.”

At the American Psychological Association, Seamone said you have to understand the culture to understand and treat an illness. Without knowledge of the culture, you are not going to make a smart determination, he said.

“In child custody evaluation guidelines, you have an obligation to know that military culture and how it affects families,” Seamone said.

To make the best decisions, courts must know about military disability, a soldier’s time in the field, housing and other issues that may affect a family.

When it comes to child custody cases, Superior Court Judge Art Smith III recalled a case with two military parents on separate bases but the court received orders from a third state.

“That is probably something we see more than other jurisdictions,” he said.

Smith also said he has 15-20 veterans with criminal court cases and they have to be selected for one of the three programs. The veterans are monitored, receive counseling and must complete the 18-month program to get a consideration on their case from the district attorney’s office.

Shawn C. Marsh, the chief program officer of Juvenile Law at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges in Reno, Nev., wants to see some energy in connecting the dots when it comes to serving military families.

“It’s really about communication,” he said. “It’s about relationships and connecting those dots at a national level.”

Judges need to know about military families, services and culture, said Peggy Walker, a Douglasville Ga., Juvenile Court judge and president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

“We also want to know what the military families need to know about the courts, how it operates and how its navigated in a way to achieve the best outcome,” Walker said. “We want strong families. We want families to be resilient and we want our children to be able to have both parents even when they have active families when they get deployed.”

Walker noted the high concentration of military families in the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit and at Hindsville near Savannah. The more exposure a judge has in those areas helps the judge with skills and knowledge to do the job.

“We have to do a very good job with training,” she said. “That’s why a good organization like the National Council is a critical resource to be able to provide those tools.”