INDIANAPOLIS | The director of the Indiana Department of Child Services resigned Monday amid allegations he improperly intervened in a DCS neglect case involving his grandchildren.
Judge James Payne told Gov. Mitch Daniels he was quitting the agency he has led since Daniels created it in 2005 to prevent further disclosures from harming his grandchildren or DCS.
"I will not allow this personal, family tragedy to be misused to distort the positive performance of all DCS employees, which has been recognized across the nation as one of the biggest turnaround stories," Payne said in his resignation letter.
The Indianapolis Star reported Sunday that Payne may have violated DCS ethics rules by privately working to discredit the agency's recommendation that his son's estranged wife be given custody of Payne's grandchildren. Payne was awarded temporary custody after DCS found his daughter-in-law left the children home alone for hours.
Payne said his involvement in the case was only as "a grandparent, father and husband" and not in a professional capacity. DCS hired a retired Illinois caseworker to oversee the case involving Payne's grandchildren.
In a sternly worded statement, the Republican governor said he accepted Payne's resignation and blasted the newspaper's report.
"I respect his view that his family be spared further harsh criticism and that a difficult personal dispute, not of his own making, could be misused by those with political or special interest agendas to falsely disparage the excellent work he and his DCS co-workers have done over the last eight years," Daniels said.
Daniels appointed DCS Chief of Staff John Ryan to serve as the agency's new director.
Word of Payne's resignation came just before noon region time during a Statehouse news conference called by Democrats serving on a General Assembly study committee reviewing DCS operations. The lawmakers said they wanted Payne to temporarily step aside while Indiana's inspector general reviewed the alleged ethical violation.
The Democrats cheered when an aide showed them an email message announcing Payne's resignation.
"That was fast action," said state Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, amid laughter. "You hate to see anyone resign a position, but I think given everything which is pending at this time, it is the appropriate and right thing to do."
State Rep. Gail Rieken, D-Evansville, said the state's ethics watchdog still should investigate Payne's actions to determine whether anyone in the agency assisted him.
Moments later, committee Republicans defended Payne during their own news conference outside the House chamber.
"This is a time to very properly acknowledge that Judge Payne and his family are in a very, very tragic and critical point in the life of their family," said state Rep. Cindy Noe, R-Indianapolis. "I would just caution us, in the midst of this current issue, not to really erase many of the fine accomplishments and changes that have been accomplished within DCS."
Payne, who served as juvenile court judge in Marion County for 20 years before becoming DCS director, has been under fire for months as news stories piled up across Indiana reporting on DCS' failure to prevent child deaths by abusive parents.
House Democratic Leader Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, said she was pleased to see Payne go.
"There was simply too much controversy around the director and he had to leave that post for the agency to move forward," Lawson said.
On the other hand, Lake County Juvenile Court Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura said Payne had many accomplishments as DCS director that should not go unnoticed, including developing a 12-week caseworker training program, consistent policies for every county and reduced caseloads.
"I think this is a really sad day for child welfare," she said. "Judge Payne is someone who has always put the best interest of children first. The changes and improvements to child services (under his leadership) are unparalleled."
Bonaventura also condemned the Indianapolis Star for making Payne's personal life fodder for public discussion.
"I'm horrified at what has happened," Bonaventura said. "If you want to criticize Jim Payne as the head of the Department of Child Services, have at it. He’s a big boy. But to attack his family and children is an outrage. This is a very sad day."
Times staff writer Marisa Kwiatkowski contributed to this report.