Busting Bureaucracy at DHS

From releasing Peter Boy Kema documents to expanding health insurance for 11,000 children, Lillian Koller is shaking things up at the Department of Human Services

Wednesday - September 28, 2005
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Lillian Koller has brought a sense of urgency to her work at DHS
Lillian Koller has brought a sense
of urgency to her work at DHS

The status quo didn’t stand a chance. Appointed by Gov. Linda Lingle in 2003, Lillian B. Koller, convictions firmly in place, took control as director of the state Department of Human Services.

There was no time to waste. The most vulnerable in our state were being neglected and abused, and not enough was being done about it. So Koller rolled up her sleeves and jumped right in, reviewing, reorganizing and restructuring the department.

Her tenacity has earned her a bit of a reputation, and she admittedly has annoyed some people. Amid organized clutter in her busy Miller Street office, Koller displays a stuffed bear wearing boxing gloves - a gift from her staff - a Tazmanian Devil T-shirt and another tee embellished with a crown and the slogan “Royal Pain.”

“When we came to this job, with this administration, I’ve just been working at a frantic pace to get the types of changes that I believe made some very significant improvements in people’s lives, the most vulnerable people in our state,” says Koller, who received her undergraduate degree in philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles, and then went on to earn a law degree from the Martin Luther King Jr. School of Law at the University of California, Davis. She came to her current position from serving as the Drug Court Program coordinator for the Second Circuit Court in Hawaii, planning, developing, implementing and managing the Maui Drug Court Program.

The DHS umbrella covers the Benefits, Employment and Support Services Division, Med-QUEST Division; Social Services Division; Vocational Rehabilitation and Services for the Blind Division and Office for Youth Services.

“I can give you specific examples that I’m very, very pleased to have had the governor’s support to achieve, and the hard work of our staff to support us in 180 degree turnarounds in the practices and policies and procedures of the department,” says Koller. “Quite a number of those turnarounds have occurred in the past two and a half years.”

Go ahead. Try to get a word in edge-wise. Koller, 50, born in Toronto and a long-time Maui resident - “I became an American citizen at 43 so I could vote for Linda Lingle,” she says - gives detailed, rapid-fire responses to questions and packs an incredible amount of information into each sentence. Her conviction and drive are intense.

So where did that fierce determination to champion the rights of the underserved come from? Well, unlike George W. Bush’s heavenly muse, Koller’s inspiration comes from her earthly father, David Majer Koller.

“He’s a Holocaust survivor. He just passed away July 12 - in October he would have been 93. And he was definitely my inspiration; he’s why I have the acute sense of needing to correct any type of injustice, and type of disparity of people’s condition, any type of racism, sexism, because he taught me from the time I was 4 years old about man’s capacity for cruelty,” says Koller.

“But he was always extremely life-affirming with the horrors that we cannot even imagine that he witnessed. He lost everybody near and dear to him (in a Nazi death camp); he was the only survivor in his family at all. He could have come out that experience a very negative, very destructive, angry man. But he was full of hope; he was teaching me the lessons to be extremely cautious and attuned to the types of things that people say and do that indicate a prejudice or racism, or the conditions that people find themselves in that don’t give them a fair chance to have the benefits that we have, and to help them achieve the most they can in their life and not let things stand in the way; help them bust through barriers and help them be resilient.

“There is a huge sense of obligation that he gave me to fight for justice and to represent the disadvantaged and advocate for their needs to be met.”

Is it any wonder that Koller has embraced her job and proceeded full steam ahead to improve the department? And as those who’ve been on the business end of her convictions have learned, she’s all business when it comes to her mission and meeting her goals.

You’ve likely read and/or heard about her major policy-changing act as director of DHS - releasing the information on Peter Boy Kema, the little Big Island boy who went missing eight years ago and still has not been found.

“It didn’t get us anywhere to have that secrecy for eight years, and you don’t get the lessons learned,” explains Koller. ” You must get the examination of people from the outside to see if there’s a need to change our system and the way it works to prevent this from happening again, and to get justice for this child, and to get closure for those who grieve.

“I understand the confidentiality rules are well-intended, but they need reasonable exceptions so it doesn’t backfire on us. In fact, those rules that we amended - we created a set of exceptions to confidentiality for child welfare - those go well beyond the Peter Boy Kema case. It allows us to share information.”

Koller says that being unable to share information on DHS clients had a far-reaching effect on not only law enforcement, but the doctors as well.

“When I got here I felt the dysfunctional impact of the confidentiality rules. I was literally two weeks coming into this job

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