OLATHE, Kan. – Domestic violence victim Kristin sat cross-legged in a Johnson County courtroom, her eyes rarely meeting the witness stand.
Her husband, who served as a Marine, was charged with felony threat in August after he threatened to harm her and her family following a verbal argument.
“He made very explicit threats to harm my family,” she said with tears in her eyes. “He didn’t call my stepson by name, but he described him physically and said he knows how to hurt him and hurt me, that if he goes to jail, he’ll come after me once he gets out of jail and he won’t unfollow me. I have a sister who lives in Chicago. She said, ‘Shootings happen all the time in Chicago.’”
Due to her veteran status, Kristin’s estranged spouse is not going through the traditional courtroom ordeal that other domestic violence perpetrators go through.
He is enrolled in a relatively new probation and diversion program called the Veterans Treatment Court (VTC), intended to rehabilitate veteran offenders who struggle with mental health and substance use related to their service, in the hope that the treatment prevents them from recurring in the future.
The program offers supervised treatment and support services as an alternative to detention.
“If someone was placed on regular probation or given a diversion, if they had no criminal record, it would be a much easier path than this and they wouldn’t be forced to go through treatment like they do in this program, which is every week,” he said Judge Timothy McCarthy.
But some legal experts and victims question whether domestic violence cases fall within a VTC setting.
Former Texas VTC and domestic violence judge Mark Denton said it was too difficult to determine whether an abuser’s crimes were related to substance use or control issues, meaning a rehabilitation court could not be appropriate or safe.
“What really bugged me was that it’s really hard to distinguish between ‘Did I assault my partner because I’m a puncher or did I assault my partner because I have a heightened response because of my fighting experience?'” Denton said.
“If we make a mistake and take the abuser to veterans court without his intervention, we’re probably giving the victim false hope, ‘Well, if she’s getting counseling, you’ll be better off. He’ll get better,’ so it’s probably taking a situation that was already dangerous and making it even more dangerous, I guess is the way to put it.
From fighting to crime
Kristin said she supports veterans and the things they go through, but she’s not so sure VTC is designed for domestic violence repeaters.
She said she wants to testify in court about what she went through and how it affected her, but that’s not allowed by VTC’s diversion program.
“I think if a victim wants to testify and talk about what happened, they should have the opportunity to reach out to that person and help them understand the impact of what they did, how it changed their life,” she said.
“Because I don’t even think he understands or knows how much I’ve had to turn my life around in the past six months to simply avoid contact with him.”
The goal is to support the offender on their journey to becoming a better person. They get gift cards when they follow the rules each week: go to counseling, take a clean urine test, and meet veteran mentors.
“I’m not saying that I think they (veteran domestic violence offenders) should be treated badly or with disrespect or anything like that, but as someone who has committed a (violent) crime against them, it’s disturbing to see a judge to treat those people like old friends,” he said.
Of the 20 veterans currently enrolled in the Johnson County VTC program, 40% are facing domestic violence charges, 25% are facing drug related charges, 10% have DUIs, 10% have acquired gun related charges, fire and 5% procured theft charges.
“Higher-level felonies would never be able to apply, and other people could apply, but people with too many criminal records won’t be allowed in this type of court,” Justice McCarthy said.
Selection of soldiers
FOX4 Problem Solvers reached out to Kristin’s partner’s attorney for comment at least three times via email, but never received a response.
Troubleshooters learned that her husband had at least one order of protection filed against him in the state of Missouri in 2010 and three battery-related charges filed against him in Kansas between 2009 and 2022.
He was charged with criminal damages exceeding $1000 in 2010, but the battery charge associated with this incident was ultimately dismissed.
McCarthy said he understood Kristin’s point of view, but said people who think this courthouse is somehow the easy way out for a criminal are wrong.
“They (offenders) would never get tested for drugs and alcohol twice a week (in traditional courts), they wouldn’t have a mentor to walk them through it all,” McCarthy said.
“So, this is more difficult, and it might not seem like it, but I certainly understand domestic violence victims and that point of view, but I still think we should take veterans with domestic violence allegations under the right circumstances because that’s where a lot of times post-traumatic stress disorder appears.
Johnson County VTC boasts a 95% success rate, which means that 95% of veterans who complete the program do not relapse, but nearly 25% of veterans who start the program do not complete it.
Among the failures was Robert Sowders, who had just started the program last year when he drove his ex-girlfriend to a Lawrence cemetery, killed her, then he pointed the gun at himself.
Sowders had been charged with aggravated assault when he was admitted to the VTC.
VTC courts in some states would never allow him in, but Johnson County widened the net, believing this court could help those veterans.
“What I can tell you is that in that case, there was a big deal between his mentor, the probation officer, Johnson County Mental Health,” said Steven Howe, the Johnson County District Attorney. “So, efforts have been made and despite those efforts, we can’t save everyone, and in some cases tragic situations happen and I don’t like to see them happen.”
Howe, whose office selects people eligible for VTC, said if Sowders had gone through the regular court system, he would most likely have paid bail and been on probation, but without the additional services VTC offers.
“If we didn’t have a veterans treatment court, that possibility would still have happened,” he said. “In all likelihood, he would have bonded anyway, he would have been on probation and then we would have had the same situation.”
Howe said he believes the Sowders case is an anomaly, pointing to that 90% success rate, even among domestic violence offenders.
But Denton said the courts should tread carefully.
“If I’m the hitter, PTSD and substance abuse aren’t going to make me a hitter,” he said. “So, I’m just a sober hitter, but if they do the hitter surgery and really monitor it, that’s a great move.”
Meanwhile, Kristin says she’s trying to file for divorce, in hopes of moving on and healing from a marriage that she says has compromised her physical, emotional and financial well-being.
“I think what comes back to me is I can’t stress enough, I don’t think VTC is a bad program, like I don’t think so, I don’t believe it,” he said.
“However, I don’t think it’s appropriate for domestic violence offenders, especially those who have had a repeated history of this type of crime.”