Department of Child Services Director James W. Payne waged a behind-the-scenes fight to discredit and derail his agency's recommendations in a child neglect case that involved his grandchildren.
Payne's actions -- uncovered by a months-long Indianapolis Star investigation -- crossed ethical lines, experts say, and likely violated his agency's code of conduct.
Even as he ran DCS, Payne became deeply immersed in the case, which began in 2010 when his grandchildren were taken from their mother by his agency as she was locked in a nasty divorce and custody battle with Payne's son.
It wasn't DCS' removal of the children, however, that Payne opposed. What put him at odds with DCS was his agency's push, about nine months later, to end the neglect case and permanently reunite the children with their mother.
Payne, in written responses to questions from The Star, stressed that his only role in the case was "as a grandparent, father and husband," and not in a professional capacity.
At no point during his involvement in the case, however, did Payne step aside from his leadership role with the agency -- a move ethics experts say would have been appropriate.The story has enough twists and turns to serve as a script for a made-for-TV movie. According to Evans' story, John Payne's reputed wife, Heather, filed for divorce back in December, 2009 after John was arrested for drunk driving for the third time. James Payne became involved almost immediately in the case after filing a motion as the grandfather of the couple's children seeking visitation rights while the case was pending, a motion denied by the judge. Payne then hired a private investigator who began keeping tabs on Heather, even placing a GPS tracker device on her car. It turns out that she was leaving the three kids alone at home while she worked nights as a stripper. A child neglect case is made anonymously by someone, likely the private investigator, and the children wind up in James Payne's custody where his son is now living. As Evans noted, this happened at a time when Heather had the upper hand in the case, having been awarded custody of the children and receiving $800.00 a month in child support John was ordered to pay her.
According to Evans' story, DCS was concerned enough about the potential conflict that it hired a former Illinois child welfare worker to oversee the Payne neglect case rather than assigning one of its child welfare workers to the case. That apparently created a whole other set of problems because the contracted case worker was unfamiliar with Indiana practices and procedures and "slow to respond to court orders and services ordered for Heather Payne and the children." James Payne at one point is accused by one of his grandchildren of slapping them in the face, "prompted by the child's disrespectful behavior." Payne denied the allegation, contradicting the claim of the children. Apparently Payne obtained daily transportation assistance from DCS to take the grandchildren to school despite the fact that he earned $132,600 a year as DCS chief and had a take-home car.
Payne's clashes with his own agency accelerated after it later supported reunification of the children with their mother, a move approved by Judge Nation. One of the children, according to the story, was arrested for shoplifting at Wal-Mart during a visit to Payne's home after the child left Payne's home unsupervised after the trial reunification with the children's mother. Evans details legal briefs Payne filed that contained a "stinging attack on DCS."
The brief claimed the agency's report in support of permanent reunification "will be shown to be so inaccurate that its value and credibility should be given no weight."
It also slammed service providers who partnered with DCS to assist children and families, with allegations such as: "What they seem to demonstrate now, along with case manager, Sandy Downs, is that once they make a recommendation, in spite of overwhelming evidence that the recommendation is wrong, they will not change it."
Another dig: "Instead of concentrating on what is in the children's long term best interest, it seems DCS finds it expedient to end this case, it appears they are worn out by this case, and are tired of having to do the work needed to help the children."Judge Nation closed the DCS case after siding with the agency in reuniting the children with their mother. In a final twist in the story, the divorce case of Heather and John is dismissed after it is learned that Heather wasn't legally married to John because she never divorced her prior husband. "Heather Payne is still legally married to her second husband, Michael Brandon Baker," a motion to dismiss the divorce case being handled by Judge Daniel Pfleging read. The case has now moved to Marion County where a paternity and child custody case is pending. Payne tells the Star he hasn't seen the grandchildren since last Christmas. "So, to even imply that I had any professional influence on this case," he said, "is preposterous." Unbelievable.