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A sense of the possible: Sandra Hahn and a life in corrections

STILLWATER, Minn. — Hahn is credited with being the first probation worker in the nation to coordinate the use of the LAP tool among all of the corrections agencies in a jurisdiction.

Sandra Hahn, the deputy director of corrections for Washington County, pictured in her office at the county government center in Stillwater.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

While covering important events in our civic and cultural life, journalists typically focus on facts, controversies, issues and their impact. They rarely look through the lens of understanding leaders and leadership: who is leading the causes and creating change, how those leaders were motivated to tackle tough problems and create opportunities for their communities, and how they worked through the challenges that arose.

In this series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership,” MinnPost is profiling such leaders in order to provide new insights — and, we hope in some cases, inspiration — for our readers. Each profile is paired with comments from members of a panel of experienced leaders and scholars of leadership. The project is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

STILLWATER, Minn. — Sandra Hahn went to work as a probation officer for Washington County in 1977, not long after graduating from Augsburg College. She figured she would stay for three years before moving on to see what the world had to offer.  

Thirty-five years have gone by and she is still here, working on the second floor of a government center that has grown from a few buildings into a sprawling complex that covers a city block. “We all wanted to save the world,” she said with a laugh, reflecting on her 1970s idealism. “I guess I decided I might as well try to from here.”

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Probation officers, like their partners in the corrections field – police officers, counselors, social workers – deal regularly with social dysfunction and tragedy. The work can be defeating, but Hahn has persevered, buoyed by an activist’s sense of purpose and a willingness to try new things.

During the 1980s, for instance, at a time when Hahn was trying to better understand gangs – specifically, the role women play in gang life – she contacted several people she knew who were also working on the problem. That led to a phone call with a Los Angeles Police Department detective who patrolled areas where gangs were thriving.

Could I come to California and see what you do, Hahn asked the detective? Would you show me around?

The officer agreed, and Hahn found herself in an LAPD squad car, burning vacation time on the streets of Los Angeles. “Yeah, I took a vacation and drove around with a detective in LA,” she said, shrugging her shoulders and smiling. “What can I say?”

An advocate for women

Hahn has spent much of her career working with domestic abuse victims, who are usually, but not always, women. Recently, she was recognized by a counties organization for promoting the use of an investigative tool that has shown promising signs of reducing the chance that women will be seriously injured or killed by a violent partner.

An organization called The Minnesota Association of Community Corrections Act Counties – a group that runs local corrections programs – recently honored Hahn with a citation that recognizes “exemplary individuals, programs or projects that serve to advance the knowledge, effectiveness, and integrity of the criminal justice system.”

The investigative tool is a questionnaire known in law enforcement circles as the LAP – an acronym for Lethality Assessment Protocol. It’s an 11-question form that police officers and other first responders use to interview people – who are often emotionally traumatized – at the scene of domestic disturbances. If the answers show that the victim is at high risk of being harmed, that information is immediately sent to probation officers who can, in turn, relay that to judges overseeing arraignments of suspects – a step in the legal process that often happen the day after arrests.

Perhaps more important, high-risk victims are strongly encouraged to get help from social-service agencies right away; in Washington County, for instance, victims are referred to Tubman Family Alliance, a social services group that acts as a 24-hour call center for the LAP initiative.

It may sound rather simple – a few questions at the scene of a disturbance – but for years the most common way for corrections workers to look out for abused women has been to gain their trust – and then hope that that relationship pays off when the women need help.  As a result, many women in difficult situations end up injured – or worse.

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“In my mind, we needed something that was quick and could be used on the spot,” Hahn said during an interview with MinnPost at her office on a cool and rainy October morning. “When I first heard about (LAP) in 2006, I thought, ‘There has to be a way we can use this. How can we incorporate this?’”

Hahn is credited with being the first probation worker in the nation to coordinate the use of the LAP tool among all of the corrections agencies in a jurisdiction. It has helped to bring some standardization and uniformity to domestic abuse investigations in Washington County, Hahn said, “so that if somebody gets arrested we can say to all those in the system: ‘What do you do? What do you do? And what are you going to do?’”

Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell, a nursing professor at Johns Hopkins University, developed the questions that are used on the LAP.  She said Hahn has played an important role in drawing attention to the tool and advocating its use in Minnesota.

Such local champions of LAP are needed “because a community won’t adopt it and work together without one; you need advocates and police meeting together as part of the training. It takes all sides,” she said. “The advocates need to know that the police will be calling and so forth; it requires that kind of collaboration.

It’s all in the questions

According to the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, more abused women in Maryland are taking advantage of protective services because of the LAP tool. The organization, which worked with Campbell on designing the LAP, claims that Maryland saw a 41 percent drop in intimate partner homicides over a three-year period ending in 2011.  (Research cited by the group shows that the risk of severe assault drops 60 percent when victims utilize a protective services program after a domestic dispute).

So far, the LAP is being used by various jurisdictions in 14 states: Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Vermont.

Its use in Minnesota is bound to spread. Campbell visited Washington County on Oct. 22, meeting with corrections workers and local law enforcement officials in Stillwater. Last summer, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a former Hennepin county prosecutor, highlighted the LAP during a forum in the county. Meanwhile, officials in nearby Ramsey County and the cities of St. Paul and Red Wing are considering whether to use the tool.

Officers at the scene use the questionnaire to ask alleged victims a series of specific questions designed to shed light on their security.  Here are a few of the questions that are asked:

            1) Has he/she ever used a weapon against you?
            2) Has he/she ever tried to choke you?
            3) Is he/she unemployed?

Victims deemed to be at high risk for harm are encouraged to immediately contact an advocacy group, such as Tubman, and seek shelter; at the very least, they are provided with contact information and briefed on warning signs of future danger.  It’s a more aggressive strategy than law enforcement has used in the past, Campbell said.  

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“Officers have often told us that they would make an arrest, have a good protocol and give information to a local domestic violence group – and then walk away thinking, ‘she may never call,’ and being worried that the next call to the house would be for some sort of  tragedy.”

Officers who use the LAP are trained to place a phone call to an advocacy group right from the scene and to make sure that the victim actually talks with someone immediately about getting some help.

Helping from the inside

Hahn studied history at Augsburg, a small liberal-arts college in Minneapolis, but it was a course in social work that helped to put her on her career path. As part of the class, students visited the federal prison in Stillwater, where they met with prisoners in Dyad groups – groups of two. After graduating, she landed an internship with Hennepin County’s youth diversion program, working with street toughs in Minneapolis.

She found that she liked the work and had a solid rapport with troubled young people.

“We would advocate for these kids and help them make choices to keep them out of the system,” she recalled. She remembered thinking that perhaps she could do more good “being on the inside” – that is, as a corrections worker.

That’s when she accepted the position as a probation officer in Washington County and went to work in Stillwater, a river town of 18,000 residents just a few miles from Mahtomedi, where she grew up.

Hahn worked as a probation officer for nearly 20 years, working with both juveniles and adults, before becoming a supervisor, and later a manager, in the adult division of the agency.  Her current title is deputy director of corrections. 

Over the years, Hahn has been promoted, more than once, to jobs with more responsibility, but not out of any strong sense of ambition; rather, she enjoys the work and the chance to try new things, which often put her in positions to lead.  

“People have given me the opportunity to do various jobs, and I have had the responsibility to do them to the best of my ability,” she said. “And I was lucky, too, to come across things during my time here that represented changes to the field and were things that piqued my interest.”

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Chris Kruger is a longtime probation officer who met Hahn in 1979 when Kruger went to work for Washington County. Both women were relatively new on the job, but Kruger could see that Hahn was on the way up.

“I came in with no experience, really, and basically got to follow her around,” Kruger recalled.  “She was just a great teacher and a great mentor and, you know, just an all-around good person.”

Kruger said Hahn committed herself to a deep understanding of the corrections field and ways in which it could improve, such as through more effective risk assessments and more complete pre-sentence investigations. “She is just so knowledgeable about this field and has spent so much time and energy in learning new things and training people,” Kruger said. 

She added: “She goes above and beyond what is expected of anybody in this field.”

Walking in others’ shoes

In the 1980s, Hahn began studying street gangs, prison gangs, right-wing extremists and hate groups, later teaching courses on her findings at conferences for law enforcement officials and other corrections workers.

She worked on a task force that reworked risk-assessment tools in the 1990s, and she currently serves on the Minnesota Advisory Task Force on the Woman and Juvenile Female Offender in Corrections, whose stated mission is “to promote and advocate for gender and culturally responsive services for women and girls in the criminal and juvenile systems.”

Asked about her work on these initiatives, she said: “It’s really about collaboration and networking – not about me. I think you can learn a lot by asking questions and gathering more information, and that’s what I’d like to think I have done.  

“You know, one thing leads to another and you meet other people and then, there you are, doing a training seminar.”

When Hahn was in college she spent a semester studying in Iceland and returned to the tiny island nation years later to live for a short time. (The book “The Windows of Brimnes: An American in Iceland,” the late Minnesota writer Bill Holm’s memoir about living in the land of his ancestors, is a favorite.)

She cherished that cultural immersion for the way it stretched her own thinking about other people and exposed her to different points of view.

“I learned a great deal about myself and my ability to adapt and persevere despite having little control or knowledge of the language being spoken around me or of my surroundings,” she wrote in an email exchange that followed the interview. “I also learned the incredible value of opinions and life experiences that were different from my own.”

Kruger says empathy is indeed a big part of probation work because people respond in different ways to the services that are designed to help them.

“You have to treat people respectfully but balance that with the need for public safety and the need for holding people accountable,” she said. “You have to be a good listener and understand where people are coming from.

She added: “I think it’s a rewarding job in the end. You hold people accountable, of course, but also offer them some resources and hope for change so that they don’t find themselves back in this position. That’s what we do.”

Hahn, who is married and has two sons and a granddaughter, spoke quickly, chopping the desk with her hands for emphasis. She stopped for a moment, noticing a MinnPost reporter scribbling furiously in his notebook.

“OK, I have to slow down!” she said. “As you can tell, I’m pretty excited about this. It’s not often that you get to try something new and promising like this. Every time we can add a new tool we get closer to being able to have the best reaction to a case. That’s the goal.”

Thirty-five years in a difficult trade hasn’t curbed her enthusiasm – for her own work or the work of those she supervises.

“I think you pay it forward,” she said.  “If I can give people opportunities or let them follow their passion – because everybody has different talents – then everybody wins. If you let people do what gives them joy and what they are passionate about, who doesn’t want to come to work?