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OLATHE, Kan. — Kristin, a victim of domestic violence, sat with her legs crossed in a Johnson County courtroom, her eyes seldom meeting the stand.

Her husband, who served as a Marine, was charged with criminal threat in August after he threatened to harm her and her family following a verbal altercation.

“He threatened very explicitly to harm my family,” she said with tears in her eyes. “He didn’t name my stepson by name, but he physically described him and said he knows how to hurt him and to hurt me, that if he goes to jail, he will come after me once he’s out of jail and he won’t stop coming after me. I have a sister that lives in Chicago. He said, ‘Shootings happen all the time in Chicago.’”

Due to his veteran status, Kristin’s spouse, whom she is separated from, isn’t going through the traditional probationary court that other domestic violence offenders go through. 

He’s enrolled in a relatively new probation and diversion program called veterans treatment court (VTC), intended to rehabilitate veteran offenders who struggle with mental health and substance use related to their service, in the hopes that treatment prevents them from reoffending in the future. 

The program offers supervised treatment and support services as an alternative to incarceration. 

“If somebody went on a regular probation or got a diversion, if they didn’t have any criminal history, it’d be a lot easier path than this and they wouldn’t be forced to go to treatment like they do in this program, which is every week,” Judge Timothy McCarthy said.

But some legal experts and victims question whether domestic violence cases belong in a VTC setting.

Former VTC and domestic violence judge in Texas, Mark Denton, said it’s just too difficult to determine whether a batterer’s crimes are related to substance use or control issues, meaning a rehabilitation court might not be appropriate or safe.

“What really bothered me was it’s really hard to tell the difference between, ‘Did I assault my partner because I’m a batterer or did I assault my partner because I have a heightened response because of my combat experience?’” Denton said.

“If we make a mistake and we put the batterer through veterans court without batterers intervention, we’re probably giving false hope to the victim, ‘Well, if he’s getting counseling, you’ll be better. She’ll be better,’ so it’s probably taking a situation that was already dangerous and making it more dangerous, I guess is the way to put it.”

From combat to crime

Kristin said she supports veterans and the things they go through but isn’t so sure VTC is designed for repeat domestic violence offenders.

She said she wants to testify in court about what she’s been through and how it’s affected her, but that’s not allowed through VTC’s diversion program.

“I think if a victim wants to testify and speak about what happened then they should have that opportunity to address that person and help them understand the impact that what they’ve done, how that’s altered their lives,” she said.

“Because I don’t think he even understands or knows how much I’ve had to alter my life in the last six months to simply avoid contact with him.”

The focus is on supporting the offender in their path to becoming a better person. They get gift cards when they follow the rules each week – going to counseling, having a clean urine test and meeting with veteran mentors.

“I’m not saying that I think they (veteran domestic violence offenders) need to be treated poorly or with disrespect or anything like that, but as someone who had a (violent) crime committed against them, it’s unsettling to see a judge treat those individuals like old friends,” she said.

Of the 20 veterans currently enrolled in Johnson County’s VTC program, 40% are tackling domestic violence-related charges, 25% face drug-related charges, 10% have DUIs, 10% have acquired firearm-related charges, and 5% procure theft charges.

“The highest-level crimes would never be able to apply, and other people could apply, but people with too much criminal history are not going to be allowed in this kind of court,” Judge McCarthy said.

Selecting the soldiers

FOX4 Problem Solvers contacted Kristin’s partner’s attorney for comment at least three times via email, but never received a response.

Problem Solvers learned her husband had at least one protection order 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 damage greater than $1000 in 2010, but the battery charge associated with this incident was ultimately dismissed.

McCarthy said he understands Kristin’s point of view but said individuals who think this court 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 court), they wouldn’t have a mentor to walk with them through it,” McCarthy said.

“So, this is harder, and it may not appear it, but I certainly understand victims of domestic violence and that point of view, but I still think that we ought to take veterans with domestic violence charges in the right circumstances because that’s where a lot of times PTSD appears.”

Johnson County VTC boasts of a 95% success rate, meaning 95% of veterans who complete the program do not reoffend, 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 former girlfriend to a Lawrence cemetery, murdered her, then turned the gun on himself.

Sowders had been charged with aggravated assault when he was accepted into VTC. 

VTC courts in some states would never have allowed him in, but Johnson County has widened the net, believing this court can help those veterans.

“What I can say is that in that instance, there was a lot of intervention occurring between his mentor, the probation officer, Johnson County Mental Health,” Steven Howe, Johnson County district attorney, said. “So, there were efforts made and despite those efforts, we can’t save everybody, and in some instances, tragic situations happen and no likes to see those occur.”

Howe, whose office selects the people eligible for VTC, said if Sowders had gone through the regular court system, he most likely would have posted bond and been out on probation, but without the additional services VTC offers.

“If we didn’t have veterans treatment court, that possibility would’ve still happened,” he said. “In all likelihood, he would have still made bond, been out on probation and so we would’ve had the same situation.”

Howe said he believes the Sowders case is an anomaly, pointing at that 90% success rate, even among domestic violence offenders.

But Denton said courts should proceed with caution.

“If I’m the batterer, PTSD and substance abuse is not gonna make me not a batterer,” he said. “Then, I’m just a sober batterer, but if they do batterers’ intervention and really monitor it, that’s a great move.”

In the meantime, Kristin says she’s trying to file for divorce, in the hopes of moving forward and healing from a marriage that she says compromised her physical, emotional and financial wellbeing.

“I think what it gets back to for me is that I can’t stress enough, I don’t think VTC is a bad program, like I do not think that, I do not believe that,” she said.

“However, I don’t think it’s appropriate for domestic violence criminals, especially those that have had a repeated history of those types of crimes.”