Lillian Koller asked why a state known for tight extended families was quick to give up on them.
In Hawaii, there is a native word for the expansive sense of family that people feel for friends and relatives alike. It's called "'ohana." That kinship is something that Lillian Koller, a California native, always appreciated about her adopted state. But she could never square her admiration for the 'ohana with a troubling problem that she inherited at the Department of Human Services. Hawaii was removing children from families, and putting them into foster care, at four times the national average.
That wasn't all. As eager as the state was to take at-risk children away from their families, there was no evidence that the kids were generally any better off for it. A federal review in 2003 showed that Hawaii's rate of child re-abuse was no lower than the rest of the nation. Koller knew Hawaii could do better. So she set out to overhaul the department's entire approach to children and families. For political leverage, she used the federal review process as a call to action and a way to benchmark progress. And for inspiration, she turned to the 'ohana.
Koller took a two-pronged approach. First, she lightened Hawaii's heavy-handed approach to taking children from their families. She never wavered from protecting kids in real danger by removing them from abusive homes. But she also implemented a differential-response system that was nimble enough to notice when milder interventions could work. Social workers began putting more emphasis on strengthening families and addressing risk factors before they led to abuse.
The other part of Koller's strategy was to bolster the quality of foster care. She partnered with native Hawaiian community groups and faith-based organizations to identify, recruit, screen, train and provide ongoing support for foster families. Koller likens the network to a giant family; she called it the Hui Ho'omalu, which means "a group to protect and shelter." Her approach has impressed Lowell Kalapa, who sits on the board of Foster Family Programs of Hawaii, one of DHS's many nonprofit partners in the islands. "It is prevention that she is tuned into — which from the social workers' point of view is the best approach," Kalapa says.
The results have been impressive. In Koller's nearly six years at the helm of DHS, she has reduced the number of children in foster care by almost half — from 3,000 to about 1,700. At the same time, the rate of child re-abuse has gone down by two-thirds. To make a difference in so many lives is an achievement Koller could hardly have imagined when she was practicing law in San Francisco — a life she describes as a "fur-lined coffin." She moved to Hawaii in 1984. After successful stints in the Maui County prosecutor's office, the county drug court, and now with DHS, she's proud to hear locals call her "kama'aina" — a bona fide Hawaiian. "It is not good enough," Koller says, "to just live your life for yourself."
— Will Wilson
Photo by Hugh Gentry