James Payne offered the necessary next reform for the Indiana Department of Child Services — by resigning from the agency he founded.
Payne's resignation Monday came the day after The Indianapolis Star reported on Payne's involvement in a child neglect case involving his grandchildren. That appears to have violated the agency's code of conduct, which of course forbids agency staff from getting involved in cases involving relatives.
Even if The Indianapolis Star had not reported on that case, though, it was time for Payne to leave the agency.
Gov. Mitch Daniels defended his hand-picked DCS director in his statement Monday: "The leading national authorities are unanimous in praising Indiana's improvements in child protection, often labeled 'worst to first,' during Jim Payne's tenure."
To his credit, Payne reduced the workload for caseworkers by going on a hiring spree. But other actions Payne took were a detriment to the agency's mission.
Payne prided himself on returning millions of unspent DCS dollars to the state Treasury, even as some children failed to receive the level of care they needed.
Children who might fare better in a group home were given less intensive — less expensive — care. Some parents were being told to abandon their children so the state could provide help to these children whose health or circumstances make them especially vulnerable.
The DCS agreed this month to fund care for children in this condition, in the wake of Times investigative reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski's yearlong Children in Peril series. What took so long?
Payne's dogged defense of the centralized child abuse hotline became a campaign issue this year. Stories emerged of workers at that call center not handling calls as well as local workers might have.
It was time to reform the system again, to send calls not to a central call center but to local caseworkers who might be more familiar with the families involved and would be able to process reports more quickly and efficiently.
In accepting Payne's resignation, Daniels appointed DCS Chief of Staff John Ryan to serve as the agency's new director.
Ryan must work quickly on damage control. He should order an independent top-to-bottom review of the agency's operations.
These are the last few months of Daniels' final term in office, and this kind of review might not be completed by the time Daniels leaves office and the next government decides who will head the agency. But order the review anyway.
This is about protecting Hoosier children, not about politics.