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Mother: Broken criminal justice system robbed her son of his life

Calls for change in Indiana court system

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Most central Indiana counties have some form problem-solving court.

These courts deal with mental health, drug addiction, veterans and nonviolent family problems. The expansion of problem-solving courts is a top priority for the Indiana Supreme Court justice.

According to a legislative study that was released in 2023, 80% of the inmates in county jails suffer from mental health and substance abuse issues, and getting people the help they need is difficult.

Cole Wenck had his most recent picture taken at the Hendricks County jail. He had been in a court-ordered work release program but violated the conditions of his parole. Wenck, 26, has been in and out of the justice system for a decade.

His mother, Tina Forcier, wants people to know that Wenck was a bright, happy child until she noticed his grades starting to fall. “It took a lot for his grades to drop because he was just very intelligent. That’s when he just stopped. He couldn’t focus, and this is when he started use some recreational drugs to deal with the symptoms the early onset symptoms of illness.” 

Forcier says, in a matter of a month, her son went from a high-achieving student-athlete playing football and baseball to a 16-year-old with a criminal record. His first arrest came when he was caught riding his bicycle on restricted state property. Police found marijuana and drug paraphernalia in his backpack.  

“I was shocked just because I never, ever, ever, ever would have taught that of Cole. I just wouldn’t, but a lot of us parents don’t and … that same week though after that he ended up in Methodist psychiatric unit,” Wenck’s mom said.

She remembers the day her son was put into psychiatric unit. She says he locked himself in a bathroom and in a fit of rage shattered a mirror. “It shattered all over the ground, and then my first thought was, ‘oh ‘Oh, my God, he could take that broken glass and cut his wrists.’ He wouldn’t come out and kept saying he was going to do something and so I called 911.”

Doctors diagnosed Wenck with depression and sent him home with a prescription. It offered some relief, but that relief was temporary. “He has missed all his graduation. He would have been done with college and in his first job.”

Forcier says her son’s mental health has robbed him of a life.  

In addition to depression, doctors would eventually diagnose bipolar, paranoia, hallucinations, uncontrollable fear and rage, and declared him a risk for suicide.

Forcier says her son’s legal troubles were rotted in drugs and self-medicating. A series of arrests over 10 years entered him into a revolving door of the legal system. No one tried or could connect his mental health to the crimes he committed. Hendricks County doesn’t have a mental health court.   

“His attorney’s even told me that at the time we would be much better if we were in a different county. They admitted it was one of the worst. They did say that this county or that county have mental health courts, they use that name, but there was nothing they could do.”

The head of the Indiana Supreme Court sees the same problem in other cases. Earlier this year, Chief Justice Loretta Rush told I-Team 8 it was a problem of justice by geography. “I think it will have to be, and, also for smaller communities, you are going to see counties band together because they might not have the resources to have one. So, a big push for me, the General Assembly this year is to fund the drug courts instead of funding the tail end, which is long periods of incarceration. Doing the front end, we have about 4,000 participants in problem-solving courts a year, and that is growing, and that is 4,000 lives saved.”

Judge Mark Smith presides over the Hendricks County drug court. “I think my first response to that would be, you know, that is not so much of an anomaly because historically the criminal justice system has always been that way, you know. We have 92 different counties and 92 different ways of doing things.”

He says for problem-solving courts to be successful the local prosecutor must be on board.

Smith says the requirements for drug court are strict and don’t admit people into the program with violent charges. The judge said many of the people charged with drug offenses have mental health challenges.

“You know, the mental health is always a challenge when you are dealing with individuals who are duel diagnosed and experiencing mental health issues. We are now given the opportunity to give them a preliminary evacuation to determine whether they can be treated in another environment besides housing them in jails,” Smith said.

Forcier can’t help but think how her son’s life might be different if he had gotten treatment instead of jail time. “You can’t give him his time back in life he has missed.”

She told I-Team 8 that her son can live a normal life if he stays on his medication. His latest parole violation came after he stopped taking his medication while on work release. He is scheduled to be released from jail in January.