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WyCo Veteran’s Treatment Court offers mental health resources, expunged records

Posted: 5:52 PM, May 16, 2024
Updated: 2024-05-16 18:56:27-04
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Editor's Note: This story is part of a series of stories, "Are You OK?" from KSHB 41 News and the KSHB 41 Community Advisory Board during Mental Health Awareness Month. Additional mental health resources are available in Kansas and Missouri. Help is always available by dialing 988.

Wyandotte County’s Veterans Treatment Court is in its third year and is offering resources for veterans to avoid jail, prison and even expunge their records.

It targets veterans experiencing mental health issues, addiction and any other barriers that hinder their ability to lead “law abiding, productive lives,” according to the 29th Judicial District of Kansas.

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Each veteran is also given a mentor, who typically is a veteran themselves.

The court held its opening ceremony June 30, 2021 and its inaugural graduation took place July 12, 2023 with two graduates. The court has the capacity for 12-15 participants but currently has eight, including Hope Zavala and Scott Kennedy.

“I would have never imagined myself sitting in a jail cell ever in my life,” Zavala said. “And then, I went from not just sitting in a jail cell to looking at a very possible prison sentence.”

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KSHB 41 reporter Rachel Henderson (left) talks with Wyandotte County Veterans Treatment Court participant Hope Zavala.

That is, until she applied and got accepted in the treatment court, which is one of three treatment courts in Wyandotte County: Veterans Court, Drug Court and Behavioral Health Court.

“It is an alternative to going to jail or prison, and often times, you know, that’s just a pipeline to coming back out and commit more crimes and go back in, and that doesn’t really serve anybody,” said Judge Renee Henry, who oversees each veteran court docket every other Wednesday. “It doesn’t serve the community or the individual.”

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Wyandotte County Veterans Treatment Court Judge Renee S. Henry

As veterans, Zavala and Kennedy know all about service and the toll it can take on your mental health.

“In a split second, somebody’s life can change…wouldn’t that make you anxious,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy was addicted to methamphetamine before he ended up in treatment court, something he said helped with the anxiety and loneliness that he dealt with post-Army.

“I never got addicted to the drug, per se, I got addicted to not feeling anymore,” Kennedy said.

Zavala has also had her fair share of mental health struggles, those of which she said were initially difficult to come to terms with.

“I was homeless, I was not on any type of therapy, I was not on any type of meds, I would have night terrors, all these different things, and I didn’t know these resources were there,” Zavala said. “I just felt angry that they were making me talk about things that I didn’t want to. They were wounds that, in my mind, had healed. I suppressed them, and I was moving forward.”

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But it wasn’t until she actually opened up in therapy and mandatory treatment court courses that she said she truly began to move forward.

“I felt kind of weak that I was letting these things affect me, and you know, that they wanted me to go to therapy, but that’s since changed after I actually started getting something out of it,” Zavala said.

Her rewards have been both tangible and intangible. For instance, she received a two-month sobriety coin and a certificate for making it to Phase 3 of the treatment court on Wednesday.

In Kennedy’s case, he received a 6-month sobriety coin at Wednesday’s docket, something he doesn’t take lightly.

“It’s made me get my military bearing back, it’s made me feel a sense of pride, it’s made me realize, my oath of enlistment is never expired,” Kennedy said.

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Scott Kennedy

Now, both he and Zavala are committed to getting re-acquainted with serving others, whether that’s by helping other participants stay on track or volunteering with local organizations. Zavala is even working on an idea to get the Smart Recovery learning materials into the Wyandotte County Jail where she was.

“You never win a war by yourself, so the more people we have together, it works out,” Kennedy said.

That camaraderie has stuck out to Judge Henry, who says it’s important for her to approach ease case with compassion.

“It has become a community, and I like to see when they cheer each other on,” Henry said.

As for the future, Zavala and Kennedy plan to stay on track.

“It's my routine now,” Kennedy said. “Recovery is where I'm going.”

Like the military, keeping a tight schedule has proved helpful.

“Oh, I have figured this out down to the day,” Zavala said. “March 4th of 2025 should be my graduation day. As long as for some reason, they don’t cancel any court dates or anything like that, ‘cause I know I’m gonna make it to all of them.”

Kennedy says he’s on track to graduate in January 2025.

In the meantime, they’re tapping into ambition they’ve always had, this time with their well-being in mind.

“Judge Henry will no longer be able to say, ‘I want you to be able to do this,’ but I’m still going to do it for me,” Zavala said.

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