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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, June 5, 2005

Tenacious director fights Human Services secrecy

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

It was only a few weeks after Lillian Koller's confirmation as director of the state Department of Human Services when she first had to confront the strict confidentiality in child welfare cases.

Lillian Koller, shown with her daughter, Bailey, has fought for change in the Department of Human Services and has ruffled a few feathers both in and out of the department. She was appointed to the post in 2003.

Lillian Koller

A baby had died in foster care and his parents, state lawmakers and the news media wanted answers. Koller called her staff for advice and was basically told to keep quiet, so she did. "I didn't like that," she recalled. "I don't like being gagged."

Rather than accept the advice, over the past two years, Koller changed the rules.

The department adopted an administrative rule in December that allows the public release of child welfare information in abuse and neglect investigations. Never again, Koller said, should information that might help prevent abuse or find a missing child be withheld.

Her directive has led to the release of about 2,000 pages of documents related to the disappearance of Peter Boy Kema, an abused Big Island boy missing since 1997 and presumed dead. The records have again brought attention to Peter Boy's fate and have put new pressure on police and prosecutors to solve the case.

Koller, who received a death threat and had to overcome internal resistance from her own social workers over the Peter Boy documents, has been widely praised for challenging the bureaucracy at the department. But even some of the people who support what Koller has done say she can be too brash, too willing to act on her own and go around the state Legislature.

State lawmakers and advocates for missing children did not learn until March — as they were about to again plead for the release of Peter Boy records —that Koller had already changed the confidentiality rules three months before.

"I had to exercise the power I have to do this by fiat," said Koller, explaining that she acted only after lawmakers and previous administrations would not. "I'm doing it because it's the right thing to do."

Intense, driven and tenacious, Koller can often cram an hour's worth of detail into even the most casual of conversations. She was the coordinator for the Maui drug court when Gov. Linda Lingle appointed her to lead the Department of Human Services in 2003. She had been a private attorney in California and Maui before choosing public service, first as a deputy prosecutor and then as deputy corporation counsel when Lingle was mayor.

Koller was born in Toronto, the daughter of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust. She moved to the United States as a young girl but did not apply for citizenship until she wanted to vote for Lingle for governor. A single mother, Koller now lives in a Mililani townhouse with her 7-year-old daughter, Bailey, who shares her talkative streak. "It's the best thing I ever did," she said of her daughter.

Koller is in charge of a department that controls about $1.6 billion in state and federal money, and is responsible for the most vulnerable state residents, from children in foster care to welfare mothers to the elderly and disabled.

She is guided, she says, by a belief that the public's investment can help people become self-sufficient and develop their potential. "That's why we're here," she said.

Several months after she took the job, both the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the state auditor criticized long-standing problems with the department's child-welfare system and called for improvements.

Federal auditors are now reviewing the department's use of federal welfare money, a subject that has caused conflicts between the Lingle administration and the Legislature as a reserve has grown to $150 million.

Koller has said that lawmakers were either unaware or unwilling to take full advantage of the money and lawmakers have suggested that Koller has bypassed them and created policy on her own. State lawmakers decided to restrict Koller's use of the federal money as part of the state budget and passed a bill warning of House and Senate oversight hearings of the administration's spending.

A different, backroom dispute involves $5 million the administration plans to spend on preschool subsidies for low and middle-income parents. Koller insists it was included in the state budget but House and Senate finance staff, and even some lawmakers who want the new spending, have doubts about whether lawmakers specifically approved the money.

The dispute seems narrow, but it feeds a perception that Koller and the administration may be acting unilaterally. "I like very much that she tries to push the envelope. Sometimes I think she may be pushing it a little too far," said state Sen. Rosalyn Baker, D-5th (W. Maui, S. Maui), the chairwoman of the Senate Health Committee.

Lawmakers say they appreciate the level of work Koller has put in to understand such a complex department. "I think she's been very creative and open to the concerns that have been raised through the legislative process," said state Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, D-13th (Kalihi, Nu'uanu), the chairwoman of the Senate Human Services Committee.

State Rep. Dennis Arakaki, D-30th (Moanalua, Kalihi Valley, 'Alewa), who had asked for several years that the Peter Boy records be released, said he learned Koller had changed the confidentiality rules the night before he held a hearing on the issue. But he believes Koller at times has been more forthcoming than previous administrations.

"She's been really aggressive and I know that she has stepped on toes," said Arakaki, the chairman of the House Health Committee. "But she basically gets results."

Anne Clarkin, the former coordinator for the Missing Child Center-Hawai'i who is now a deputy city prosecutor, has waited for a breakthrough in the Peter Boy case and applauds Koller's actions. "She's absolutely right," she said. "I say, 'Bravo for Lillian Koller.' "

But even Koller's insistence and bold personality are not always enough to unlock tradition. Social workers, unaware that Koller had changed the rules, asked Family Court in December whether information on a developmentally disabled boy in foster care who was missing since Halloween could be released. It took four months before the information was made public through a story.

The boy's parents told the newspaper immediately after the story appeared that the boy had been with family friends the entire time. Within days, Koller sent out a policy directive to her staff reminding them that records can be released without a court order when a child is missing.

"Obviously, it takes more than simply changing a rule," Koller said. "You have to change a culture. You have to change people's behavior."

Staff writer Mike Gordon contributed to this report. Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.