Clark County District Court Judge Kristen Parcher likened Joshua Kenney to a “pandemic baby.”
The Navy veteran is the first to enter and complete the county’s Veterans Therapeutic Court entirely during COVID-19 restrictions.
On May 24, program team members held a commencement ceremony for Kenney — which coincided with National Drug Court Month and National Mental Health Month, both recognized in May.
Several team members congratulated Kenney via Zoom, as well as guest speaker Scott Tirocchi, division director of Justice for Vets, part of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Pam Peiper, district director for U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, also attended to witness the success story in person.
Parcher highlighted Kenney’s positive attitude and his respect, care and compassion for his fellow veterans in the program.
He was presented with a Certificate of Graduation, a sheet of his prior jail booking photos — a tradition to show how far the participant has come — and two coins, one representing the therapeutic program and the other representing veterans.
“Look at that one,” Kenney said, pointing to the booking photos.
“Yeah, you had a rough night,” Parcher responded.
The 40-year-old Vancouver resident was a methamphetamine addict for about 20 years, he said.
“Thank God I got arrested when I did,” Kenney said of his November 2019 arrest. He stole some firearms from his mother’s residence, he said, and she turned him in.
Kenney spent four months in jail, he said, and during that time, looked into services for veterans. He said he learned about the therapy court and asked a corrections deputy about it. The Veterans Justice Outreach specialist from Veterans Affairs then contacted him.
“Two weeks later, I was out of jail and on a new path forward,” Kenney said.
The county’s therapy court started in April 2011 to serve veterans with underlying substance use disorders or co-occurring mental illness who were facing misdemeanor criminal charges. After the initial grant expired, the program was also able to bring in veterans who only had mental health issues, according to Beth Robinson, Therapeutic Specialty Courts coordinator.
“This was important because it allowed us to serve veterans suffering from PTSD with no alcohol (or) drug issues,” Robinson said in an email.
Following the model of Mental Health Court, in June 2019 the court expanded its eligibility to include qualifying felony cases on a pre-plea basis.
This means Kenney’s felony charge for stealing the firearms was dismissed upon his graduation.
During his ceremony, Robinson noted program challenges born of the pandemic and how Kenney kept “plugging along the whole time.”
“It says a lot about your character to make it through this last year without the normal support,” she said. “You should just be so proud of yourself. … You’re truly an inspiration.”
Navigating the pandemic
The veterans court meets Mondays, and the first day court was canceled due to COVID-19 was March 16, 2020. Kenny opted into the program four days later, Robinson said.
It took time for the program to navigate the changing landscape, she said, so the court didn’t begin using video dockets until about two months later.
“This was a big adjustment for all of us — participants and team alike,” she said in an email. “Normally, our new veterans appear weekly during Phase 1, and they have the opportunity to connect with other veterans in the courtroom. This camaraderie is one of the things that makes VeTCo so special.”
Toward the beginning of the pandemic, most connections were made over the phone with VA treatment, she said. Zoom dockets allowed participants to work with the entire team; however, it didn’t allow veterans to connect with each other, Robinson said.
With Kenney’s graduation, there are nine veterans currently in the program; eight entered during the pandemic. It takes a minimum of one year to complete the program, divided into four phases, Robinson said. The main requirements are that the veteran attend court regularly and be engaged in some form of treatment. The program also helps with services such as obtaining schooling or employment and stable housing.
One of the court’s priorities this year is to restart a veteran mentor program to help keep program participants connected, Robinson said.
With encouragement from Judge Parcher, Kenney said he’s considering becoming a program mentor.
“Josh, more than many, you had a tough go,” defense attorney Brandon Campbell said during the ceremony, referencing the barriers imposed by COVID-19.
“I just can’t commend you enough,” Campbell said. “You’ve built a foundation that I think is going to last you a long time.”
Addressing the court, Kenney said he would encourage other veterans to complete the program.
“Any time I needed help I knew I could call you guys,” he said, choking up. “I wanted it so bad. I was ready to grow up; I’m almost 41 years old. It’s time.”
After the ceremony, Kenney said the hardest part of the program wasn’t the challenges presented by the pandemic, it was “realizing what I needed to change within myself” and the steps he needed to take to do so.
“You have to be ready in your mind to change. I was done being stupid,” he said.
“All of these people holding me accountable all of the time, it helps me be successful,” Kenney added. “They’re making sure I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Kenney is clean now, he said, and it’s the longest he’s been sober since he started using drugs. He’s working as an automotive technician at a local Walmart and living in an apartment with a fellow veterans court participant, he said.
His focus now is on saving money and bettering himself.
“I just want to be the best person I can be and make up for all of the time I wasted in my life,” Kenney said.