The Arizona Republic
State caseworkers stopped checking on the welfare of two Tucson children almost 10 months before one was found stuffed into a plastic tub in a storage locker and their father was accused of killing them.
Documents released Monday show Child Protective Services concluded in April 2006 that the children should remain with their father despite a court order that granted the mother custody and gave him no visitation rights.
CPS officials responded Monday that caseworkers followed proper procedures in the case and that they were unaware of any complaints about the father. The officials also acknowledged they did not know of the court order refusing the father visiting rights.
Based on an open-records request by The Arizona Republic, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ordered the release of documents related to the deaths of Ariana Payne, 4, and her brother, Tyler, 5. His body has never been found.
Ariana’s and Tyler’s deaths, as well as that of another Tucson child, Brandon Williams, 5, have spurred legislators to call for hearings to investigate the cases and the conduct of CPS workers. Documents related to Brandon’s case also were released Monday.
“Clearly we have issues with the Tucson sector of CPS,” said Rep. Kirk Adams, a Mesa Republican who has reviewed the Payne case files. “It is incumbent upon us to look into these things.”
Gov. Janet Napolitano is “horrified about what happened to these children,” spokeswoman Jeanine L’Ecuyer said, and is in constant contact with CPS officials.
The records show CPS had closed its case on the two Payne children, assuming they were safe with their father, Christopher Payne. The documents depict a family in turmoil and an agency struggling with how to protect children from the very people they should least fear: their parents.
Not in the documents but also telling is chronic understaffing that CPS officials say hampered the agency’s ability to respond to its caseload. At one time, 40 percent of CPS’s investigator positions were vacant.
The short lives of the Payne children had been tumultuous, the documents show, with their parents estranged and their mother battling drugs, depression and bipolar disorder. Ariana and Tyler often bounced between the homes of their mother, Jamie Hallam, and father.
The couple divorced in 2003, with each accusing the other of drug abuse and mistreatment of the children. But a court awarded Hallam custody and denied Payne visitation, and the divorce decree noted his past drug abuse and allegations of domestic violence.
CPS never investigated the divorce decree, officials said Monday, so it wasn’t taken into account years later when a caseworker encouraged Payne to seek custody of the children. CPS officials said they were unaware of any complaints against Payne. In March 2006, a CPS supervisor instructed Tucson police to leave the children in Payne’s care when an officer responded to Hallam’s complaint that Payne had not returned the children after a visit.
A couple of months earlier, in January, Payne had reappeared in the children’s lives after several years away. He had a job, a girlfriend and what seemed to be a more-stable home life than Hallam’s. She had willingly allowed Ariana and Tyler to visit Payne, wanting them to have a relationship with their father.
But during one visit in January 2006, Payne decided the children were safer with him than their mother. So he kept them.
A month later, a CPS worker during a welfare check of Payne’s home noted no signs that the children were being neglected. Payne had already told CPS of his hopes to gain custody of the children and had been informed of the proper paperwork.
It would be another month, March 9, before Hallam would complain to police that Payne had kept her children. The officer who visited the home in response to that call saw little reason to worry. “I found both children (Ariana and Tyler) playing in a bedroom,” the officer wrote in a police report. “Both kids were happy, appeared healthy, and were excited to see police in their home.”
One month later, April 14, CPS closed the case with the children living in Payne’s care. He still lacked custody, but CPS officials believed they were safe.
“We had no indication whatsoever he presented a threat,” CPS head Ken Deibert said Monday. “There were not allegations of abuse or neglect against Mr. Payne.”
Within months, Ariana and Tyler would be dead. Payne and his girlfriend, Reina Gonzales, are in jail and face first-degree murder charges.
Rep. Jonathan Paton, a Tucson Republican who also has seen the Payne case files, questioned why CPS closed the case in April.
“They closed the case without custody being established,” he said, referring to documents released Monday. “It was irresponsible for them to close the case without knowing what the custody would be of these kids and never checking up on them again.”
CPS officials explained that cases are routinely closed after 21 days if there are no active complaints or allegations against a parent or guardian. There were no complaints against Payne, though CPS was unaware a court had barred him from visitation with the children.
The case of Ariana and Tyler isn’t an indictment against the entire CPS system, Deibert said.
“You cannot judge the child-welfare system by one or two cases. Is the system perfect? No. I don’t know any system that is perfect.”
Key dates of Child Protective Services’ involvement with Ariana and Tyler Payne.
2003: Jamie Hallam, the children’s mother, and Christopher Payne, their father, divorced. Each accused the other of using drugs and mistreating the children. A judge awarded Hallam custody, citing the father’s history of domestic violence and alcohol and drug abuse. The judge denied Payne visitation rights.
October 2005: CPS received a report alleging neglect of the children, who were living with Hallam and her boyfriend. A caseworker reported: “Jamie and the boyfriend are addicted to crystal meth. Neither of them works. There is no gas in the trailer, so there is no hot water. They have no money for food . . . . In May 2005, mom was passed out all day. During that time she locked the children in a bedroom. There is concern that as mom slips further into prolonged drug use, the children are both at risk for harm.”
February 2006: A CPS worker talked with Payne and suggested he consider trying to get custody of the children. Payne got the paperwork to change custody. The case manager’s notes from Feb. 14 say the mother had disappeared and the children were discovered to be with Payne. A CPS case aide saw the children at Payne’s home on Feb. 21 and said there was no indication of abuse or neglect, although electricity to the home had been turned off.
March 1, 2006: CPS closed a neglect case on Hallam, calling it “unsubstantiated.” The children remained with Payne.
March 9, 2006: CPS was told by Tucson police that Hallam wanted to get the children back and showed police court documents proving she had custody. A police officer went to the home of Payne, who said he had petitioned for emergency custody with the court. The officer talked with a CPS supervisor, who said to leave the children with Payne until a hearing could determine final custody.
April 14, 2006: CPS closed its case involving the Payne children. The agency never again contacted the children.
February 2007: Four-year-old Ariana’s decomposed body was found in a trash bin. Two searches of a local landfill failed to find Tyler, her 5-year-old brother, though police believe his body is there.