Veterans Justice Outreach Program: Further Actions to Identify and Address Barriers to Participation Would Promote Access to Services

GAO-21-564 Published: Sep 14, 2021. Publicly Released: Sep 14, 2021.
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Fast Facts

Veterans who have been arrested and jailed are at an increased risk of homelessness and mental health conditions. The VA created the Veterans Justice Outreach program, which served over 30,000 veterans in FY 2020, to address these issues. The program relies on about 400 specialists to act as a gateway to services.

We found ways VA could better execute the program and improve access, including through better planning and training. For example, training for specialists doesn't include information about a 2020 policy change that made some veterans with other-than-honorable discharges eligible for services. Our recommendations address these issues.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

In response to the Veterans Treatment Court Improvement Act of 2018, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) data show the agency hired 51 Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) specialists, though VA completed its hiring and reporting after the statute's deadline. The program relies on nearly 400 VJO specialists—primarily social workers—who work with jails and municipal courts to identify and assess the needs of arrested or incarcerated veterans, and connect them to VA health care services. In addition, VA's reporting to Congress lacked required information, such as the number of veterans who lack access to VJO specialists. Although VA does not collect these data, VJO program officials said that future research will help them estimate this number.

VA has identified and taken some steps to address barriers that veterans may face in accessing VJO specialists and receiving services. GAO additionally found that veterans with other-than-honorable discharges—often at greater risk of mental health issues and suicide—may not know they are eligible under a 2020 VA policy that extends mental health care services to certain members of this subgroup. (See figure.) In addition, this policy change and newly available services are not reflected in training for VJO specialists. As a result, veterans may not meet with VJO specialists and miss an opportunity to get help accessing VA's health care services.

Barriers Justice-Involved Veterans (JIV) May Face Accessing VJO Specialists

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VA and others have conducted research on the use of VA services by veterans in the VJO program, and VA officials have used this research to improve the program by educating staff and further directing their research. However, VJO research and improvement efforts are not guided by project plans that define goals and identify needed resources, such as stakeholder expertise, as called for by generally recognized project management practices. VJO officials told GAO that research is a key strategy for improving VJO services and that they intend to develop a plan, but do not have a timeframe for doing so. Until the VJO program develops detailed project plans that also identify needed resources, program officials will not have a road map to improve the use of VA services by veterans in the VJO program.

Why GAO Did This Study

Veterans who have been arrested and jailed are at an increased risk of homelessness, mental health conditions, and suicide. To address these concerns and prevent re-incarceration, VA created the VJO program, which served over 30,000 veterans in fiscal year 2020. The Veterans Treatment Court Improvement Act of 2018 included a provision for GAO to assess VA's implementation of the act's requirements.

This report examines the extent to which VA has (1) implemented the act's hiring and reporting requirements, (2) identified and addressed barriers that veterans face in accessing VJO specialists, and (3) conducted and used research to improve the use of VA services by veterans in the program.

GAO reviewed relevant federal laws and VA documentation, including program guidance, policies, plans, and reports; reviewed selected studies on veterans' use of the VJO program; interviewed VA and VJO officials; and analyzed VA data for fiscal years 2016 through 2020 on veterans served by the program.

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Recommendations

GAO is making three recommendations to VA, including that VA improve VJO specialists' training to increase awareness of services available to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges; and enhance planning for research on the use of VA services by veterans in criminal justice systems. VA concurred with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Veterans Affairs The Under Secretary for Health should develop and use detailed project plans that define all work activities, time frames, resources, and interim milestones to guide implementation and monitor progress toward achieving objectives and planned actions outlined in VJO's strategic plan related to identifying and addressing barriers justice-involved veterans may face in accessing VJO specialists. (Recommendation 1)
Open
VA concurred with this recommendation and, as of July 2022, has developed project plans for the three strategic goals related to identifying and addressing barriers that justice-involved veterans may face in accessing VJO specialists. While these project plans address timeframes, resources, and interim milestones, they do not include all work activities. For example, the Veterans Justice Programs strategic plan includes objectives to identify racial disparities in access to care and to expand outreach to reflect the demographics of the community and justice-involved veteran populations. However, the project plans contain no activities related to identifying disparities or targeting outreach based on identified disparities. VA officials confirmed that this work activity is not reflected in their project plans, and noted that the activity is in a separate evaluation project. The project plans do not mention this evaluation project. We will consider closing this recommendation when VA has updated its project plans to reflect all work activities required to meet its goals.
Department of Veterans Affairs The Under Secretary for Health should improve training to help VJO specialists conduct targeted outreach to justice-involved veterans, through jail administrators, to increase justice-involved veterans' awareness and understanding of VJO and other program services available to certain justice-involved veterans with other than honorable discharges. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
VA concurred with this recommendation and developed and delivered a three-part national training series to VJO specialists to implement it. The training is intended to increase justice-involved veterans' awareness and understanding of VJO and other VA program services available to certain justice-involved veterans with other than honorable discharges. These trainings were held as virtual training events, and recordings of the trainings are available to all VJO specialists. While we consider this recommendation to be implemented, this training series is not mandatory for VJO specialists, and the agency does not know how many VJO specialists have taken the training to date, according to VA officials. However, VA officials told us that they encourage all specialists to view the training when their schedules allow.
Department of Veterans Affairs The Under Secretary for Health should enhance its planning for research on the justice-involved veteran population by defining and prioritizing all activities needed to complete planned actions, establishing milestones, and identifying the resources needed to accomplish the program's research objectives. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
VA concurred with this recommendation and developed a project plan for accomplishing its goal to advance research on the justice-involved veteran population. In this project plan, VA defines and prioritizes activities, milestones, and resources needed to accomplish the program's research objectives. This project plan provides VA with a roadmap to systematically implement its research agenda for the VJO program.

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