Governor-in-waiting Jeff Colyer and Gina Meier-Hummel, his selection to head the Kansas Department of Children and Families, have an immediate opportunity to address glaring shortcomings in protecting the state’s most vulnerable children and in doing so distinguish themselves from the discredited administration of Gov. Sam Brownback.

The administrative failings at DCF have been highlighted in recent years by high-profile child deaths resulting from neglect and abuse, three legislative audits documenting shortfalls, missing foster children and most recently the jarring details of how the Brownback administration has sought to hide the endangerment of Kansas children, reported by Laura Bauer of the Kansas City Star.

Protecting Kansas children who are victims of abuse or neglect represents a core function of state government assigned specifically to DCF. The agency is called upon to intervene and protect children in the most difficult family conflicts resulting from divorce, drug and alcohol abuse, violence and other critical incidents threatening the safety of children. As of the most recent count, nearly 7,000 Kansas children had been removed from their homes and placed in the custody of DCF — a substantial increase from the average of 5,200 in 2008.

Bauer reported a frontline social worker charged with the wellbeing of a child removed from the home is sometimes assigned caseloads as high as 50 children — three times that of best practice. For each child, a social worker is expected to investigate incidents of neglect or abuse, meet with families, recommend placement to the court, formulate an individual plan for the child and the child’s family, and make a monthly visit to assess progress on implementing the plan.

Bauer’s report also pulled back the curtain on the lack of transparency at DCF. Dianne Keech, a former top DCF official, lamented in the news story: “Secrecy is killing children!” She recounted an agency culture that says: “You don’t speak. You don’t disclose. You don’t share. You don’t tell … (Y)ou don’t document anything in writing.” Keech describes how her notes from a discussion of a child’s safety were shredded by a DCF attorney. Agency staff are required to report whether any incident might “draw public, legislative or media concern.”

State lawmakers have struggled with a resistant Brownback administration to address DCF deficiencies. House Minority Leader Jim Ward, an early and informed critic, called for a change in agency leadership, which is now taking place. Lawmakers remain frustrated, however, by the veil of secrecy.

A special legislative task force on child welfare now is underway. DCF secretary designee Meier-Hummel serves as a well-regarded member of that task force, and she is presented with a unique opportunity for leadership, both on the task force and inside an emerging Colyer administration. How she and Colyer respond in lifting the embattled agency out of the depths of incompetence to responsible service in protecting children will be telling of what to expect from the new administration.

The task force also is charged with investigating the “increasing numbers of children in the child welfare system and the contributing factors” underlying the increase. In other words, has the state’s unraveling of the safety net for the lowest-income families and their children contributed to the steady increase in children removed from their homes as a result of neglect and abuse?

Kansans would welcome the prospect of a Colyer administration that demonstrates leadership and accountability in assuring the welfare of vulnerable children.

H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University and previously served with Kansas Govs. Bennett and Hayden.