Jul. 1—ST. PETER — With the major construction and renovation projects of recent years now complete on campus, Carol Olson will soon retire as executive director at what was formerly known as the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter.
Now known as Forensic Services, which encompasses the Forensic Mental Health Program and Forensic Nursing home, the state facilities provide treatment to patients who've gone through the legal system. The programs are on the upper campus at 100 Freeman Drive, distinct from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program occupying the lower campus.
Olson stepped in as executive director in 2012, right in the middle of a highly volatile period on campus.
The state had placed the programs under conditional licensing a year prior due to instances of patient maltreatment. Coming from leadership roles at behavioral health hospitals in Rochester and St. Peter, Olson said the job appealed to her because she's always been driven to overcome challenges.
Now a decade later with rebounded staffing levels and a $126.5 million construction project complete, Olson said the time is right to retire. It'll allow her more time with her family, including her grandchildren.
She also reached 40 years as a state employee this month. Her last official day on the job will be July 6.
The facilities serve an important role in Minnesota, she said, and her passion for treating patients informed her work over the years.
"They've been given a lot of challenges in their life because of their mental illness, yet they're individuals who deserve to be treated with grace and dignity and best practices as we help them move forward in their recovery," she said.
Forensic Services has about 350 patients in its mental health program and about 24 in its nursing home. Another 230 or so discharged patients are overseen by Forensic Services in communities across the state as they reintegrate into society.
Because Forensic Services treats patients who've been charged with or convicted of crimes, Olson said people often think of them as correctional facilities more than treatment facilities.
"Individuals come to us and they're here for treatment," she said. "We have an obligation to make sure they're safe as they start reintegrating into the community, and the community is safe."
Another misconception, she noted, is that Forensic Services includes the sex offender program elsewhere on campus. While it is state-run, the sex offender treatment program in St. Peter is separate and used for people who showed positive change at Moose Lake's larger sex offender facility.
Forensic Services is a bit like a community in and of itself on the south side of St. Peter, with spacious grounds and a deep history under different names dating back more than 150 years. Relations between Forensic Services and St. Peter, Mankato and other nearby communities are important when patients progress enough to leave campus.
Olson said she's confident her successor, Dr. Soniya Hirachan, will be a great leader. Hirachan came to Forensic Services eight years ago as a psychiatrist before serving as medical director for the last five years, working closely with Olson in recent years.
"When I announced my retirement, she threw her name in the hat and I was extremely thrilled, even more so when the position was offered to her," Olson said. "It's a great transition for me in terms of handing over the torch to someone who's been really involved here in Forensic Services and knows the work we do here very well."
Like Olson, Hirachan said she was drawn to Forensic Services because of the challenging nature of the work. She'd read about the issues on campus in the years leading up to 2014 and wanted to make a difference and help the facilities turn a corner.
"I saw that people were really committed," she said. "They wanted to do the right thing and there was this sort of movement going on and I wanted to be part of it and contribute to it."
At the time, she was one of only two psychiatrists serving a large patient population. Forensic Services now has five on its psychiatric team, along with eight full-time nurse practitioners.
Hirachan plans to be a collaborative leader, saying she looks forward to working with a "great team of leaders on campus."
"I think I really do try to pause and ask more questions," she said. "I like to think I'm reasonable and that again comes from asking questions and having the humility to say, 'I don't know.'"
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