Koller named ‘Public Official of Year’ by Governing magazine

Governing magazine announced today that Hawai‘i Human Services Director Lillian Koller has been selected as a “Public Official of the Year” for her leadership in bringing about widespread improvements at the state Department of Human Services over the past five years, including an overhaul of the child welfare system.

This is the first time a public official from Hawai‘i has won this prestigious national award, which Governing magazine will present to Koller and seven other honorees at a ceremony scheduled for Nov. 12 in Washington, D.C.

“This award brings national attention to the progress we have achieved in transforming DHS,” Gov. Linda Lingle said. “Through the hard work of Lillian Koller, DHS employees and our community partners statewide, the most vulnerable men, women and children of Hawai‘i are leading safer and happier lives.”

Governing magazine is honoring Koller for her efforts since 2003 to improve the quantity and quality of social services that DHS provides for the state’s most vulnerable residents. This includes working with community partners to implement new strategies for strengthening at-risk families that have significantly improved the safety, stability and well-being of children and youth.

As a result of these efforts, the number of children in state foster care is now at a 15-year low. In the past five years alone, the number of children in foster care has decreased by 43 percent, from about 3,000 children in 2003 to 1,700 children today — the lowest number since 1993.

More importantly, Hawai‘i now has one of the lowest rates of child re-abuse in the country. Hawai‘i’s child re-abuse rate dropped by nearly three-fold from 6 percent in 2003 to just 2.2 percent, which is far better than the nationally accepted standard of 6.1 percent.

Prior to implementing this new direction in 2003, DHS removed children from their biological families at up to four times the national average with no improvement in their safety.

Among the ways Koller propelled DHS forward was by instituting continuous quality improvement goals that are more stringent than Federal requirements. She also used millions of dollars in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families federal funding that previously sat idle each year and allocated that money for community-based programs that prevent and reduce poverty.

These TANF-funded programs effectively connect welfare recipients with work, enhance job preparedness, promote positive youth development, reduce teen pregnancies, help students succeed in school, reduce substance abuse, strengthen troubled families and decrease child abuse and neglect. Prior to the Lingle-Aiona Administration, DHS did not use any TANF money for poverty-prevention programs.

To help carry out these and other initiatives, Koller and her staff aggressively sought and obtained hundreds of millions of previously untapped federal dollars and then used that money to address the greatest needs of Hawai‘i’s people.

This includes significantly expanding eligibility for Medicaid so many thousands of additional adults and children have access to free and comprehensive health insurance. As a result, Hawai‘i now has the highest percentage of insured residents in the nation.

Among the initiatives launched by DHS under Koller’s leadership since 2003 are:

SEE Hawai‘i Work, a subsidized job training program that helps welfare clients escape poverty by transitioning into rewarding careers; Going Home and Going Home Plus, which enable elderly Medicaid clients and those with disabilities to leave hospitals and nursing homes so they can receive long-term care in their own homes or in family-like residential settings; QUEST-ACE, which provides Medicaid insurance for adults, with our without dependent children, who earn up to 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level; and QUEST Expanded Access, starting Feb. 1, which will provide comprehensive and coordinated care for 37,000 low-income seniors and people of all ages with disabilities.

In addition to continuously enhancing the quality and quantity of services offered by DHS, Koller is committed to making the agency more transparent and accountable. This includes launching a Web site featuring photos of children who are missing from the foster care system to enlist the community’s help in finding these children.

Koller also created new administrative rules that allow the release of otherwise confidential information if it furthers the goal of protecting at-risk children.

Also being honored by Governing magazine as “Public Officials of the Year” are Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, Colorado House of Representatives Speaker Andrew Romanoff, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, Baltimore Health Director Joshua Sharfstein, Dayton Housing Inspector John Carter and Michigan Chief Information Security Officer Dan Lohrmann.

All eight honorees will be profiled in Governing magazine’s November issue. Governing is an independent national magazine devoted to coverage of State and local government. It has a circulation of 85,000 public officials.

“These public officials each asked tough questions,” said Governing magazine Executive Editor Alan Ehrenhalt, “and when they had their answers, they weren’t afraid to act. Their leadership has led to unexpected progress. These officials prove that by asking sometimes painful questions, smart, dedicated people can change government for the better.”

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