INDIANAPOLIS — The director of the Indiana Department of Child Services likely violated his agency's code of conduct through his involvement in a child neglect case involving his own grandchildren, a report today said.
Director James Payne worked behind the scenes to discredit his own agency's recommendations in the case, The Indianapolis Star reported (http://indy.st/Pd49tJ). The agency's code of conduct forbids agency staff from personal and private interests, such as a case involving relatives.
Payne — who has led the agency since its creation in 2005 — stressed in an email to the Star that his only role in the case was "as a grandparent, father and husband," and not in any professional capacity.
The Star reported Payne never stepped aside from his leadership role with the agency while involved in his grandchildren's case, but ethics experts suggested he should have.
The DCS director also never notified Gov. Mitch Daniels of his involvement in the case or that he, at one point, was the target of an investigation into whether he slapped one of his grandchildren while the child was in his care. The Star reported that Payne was investigated and cleared by his own agency.
Payne wrote to the Star of the slapping allegation: "It never happened, never would, and the allegations were unsubstantiated by an out-of-state case manager." Payne also told the Star that Daniels' staff knew his grandchildren had been temporarily placed with him and his wife.
DCS Chief of Staff John Ryan said in an email forwarded Sunday to The Associated Press that the agency asked child welfare officials in Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky if they could take the cause but they could not. DCS then hired a retired Illinois case worker to handle the case involving the grandchildren.
Ryan said Payne's involvement "was strictly limited to being a grandparent of the children."
"At a minimum, this is an incredible, inherent conflict of interest," said Elizabeth Harbeck Voshel, a University of Michigan professor who has chaired a state ethics committee on social services since 1985.
Even the appearance of misconduct can be damaging, said Frederic Reamer, a professor at Rhode Island College who chaired the task force that wrote a code of ethics for the National Association of Social Workers. While Payne is not a social worker, Reamer said the tenets of that code apply because of his DCS leadership role.
"There should not be any hint of evidence that one is playing favorites, one is engaged in any behind-closed-doors efforts that could compromise his and the department's integrity," Reamer said.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg issued a statement Sunday saying Daniels should request Payne's resignation. A spokeswoman for Daniels had no immediate comment on Gregg's request.
The case was rooted in a 2009 divorce filing by Heather Payne against John Payne, the director's son, 10 days after her husband was arrested for drunken driving. Heather Payne sought and received a protective order and custody of their four children, including two fathered by John Payne.
John Payne alleged Heather Payne often left the children on their own for hours, and said the oldest, a 13-year-old, was responsible for watching the others.
In May 2010, someone called DCS and Noblesville police alleging she left the children alone to travel to Ohio. A DCS case worker took the children into protective custody and within hours placed them with James Payne and his wife.
The following November, DCS returned the children to Heather Payne, and a Hamilton County judge approved the move.
That move pitted DCS staff against James Payne and led to the director's involvement in helping to write a legal brief that included a stinging attack on the agency, the Star reported, citing documents it reviewed.
Ryan, in his email, noted that since the children were returned to Heather Payne, "to assert that ... Payne influenced this situation with his professional position is absolutely false."