75 years for toddler’s death

Brookings County Sheriff's Office photo

Renae Fayant sentenced for July 2019 manslaughter of her niece

Updated at 7 p.m. Sept. 22

BROOKINGS – A Brookings woman has been sentenced to 75 years in prison for the July 2019 malnourishment and dehydration death of a 2-year-old girl.

Renae Fayant, 27, pleaded guilty in July to first-degree manslaughter, and she was sentenced in Brookings County Circuit Court on Wednesday.

Fayant and Robert Price, Jr., 29, were indicted by a Brookings County grand jury in 2019 in the death of Fayant’s niece, Esperanza Maria Fayant.

Price’s case is still pending.

Brookings Police received a 911 call from Renae Fayant that her niece was unresponsive and not breathing July 31, 2019. The call came in at 3:55 p.m., from a home in the 900 block of Seventh Street, according to a report from Brookings Police. The girl was pronounced dead at the scene.

Brookings County State’s Attorney Dan Nelson said at a 2019 press conference that the girl was living in disturbing conditions, confined to a small area of the home and being deprived of food and water for an extended period of time. Human and animal feces were found throughout the home, he added. Dirty diapers were in the dining room, and rotting food was in the kitchen.

Renae Fayant admitted that she had custody of and was the primary caregiver for the toddler, and she did not deny that the toddler died from “malnourishment and failure to thrive” because of abuse.

In exchange for the July plea, remaining charges of second-degree murder and abuse or cruelty to a minor under age 7 were dismissed, and no other charges will be brought in the case. 

The State recommended a sentence of 75 years in prison with no time suspended. The defense was allowed to present evidence at sentencing and argue for less time.

First-degree manslaughter is a Class C felony with a maximum sentence of up to life in prison and a $50,000 fine, but the court agreed to be bound by the 75-year cap.

Testifying at the Wednesday sentencing hearing was psychiatrist Dr. Sarah Flynn of Sioux Falls. Flynn evaluated Renae Fayant and detailed her long history of childhood physical and sexual abuse, neglect, being in and out of various households and the foster care system, a lack of food, water and care, and severe mental health issues and treatment. Renae Fayant had an “unhealthy, adverse and dangerous upbringing,” Flynn said, but she had no history of defiance, anti-social behavior, criminal activity, drug abuse or abuse to others.

Flynn said Renae Fayant’s niece was placed in her custody because many of her family members had legal and substance abuse issues, and Renae Fayant did not. They were not monitored after the child’s placement with Renae Fayant.

Flynn said that at the time of her niece’s death, Renae Fayant was experiencing major depressive disorder-recurrent severe with peripartum onset, and she had lost 30 pounds during her first trimester of pregnancy. Renae Fayant’s childhood was chaotic, unhealthy and dysfunctional and left her without an understanding of what it is to parent and to take care of children, Flynn said.

The child’s mother, Courtney Fayant, said Renae Fayant told her she could handle caring for Esperanza while Courtney was incarcerated. 

“I’m disappointed and hurt because I trusted her with my daughter,” Courtney Fayant said via telephone at Wednesday’s hearing. “It’s very hurtful and hard not being able to hold my girl. … I want my daughter to get justice for her death. She didn’t deserve to die like that.”

Defense attorney Don McCarty asked Circuit Judge Greg Stoltenburg for leniency and to consider his client’s age, lack of criminal history, significant history of abuse as a child, mental health history, lack of addiction, background, and circumstances in which she was raised.

McCarty said, tragically, Renae Fayant was considered a success because she had graduated from high school and moved away from where she grew up, but she took her flaws from childhood with her. “It’s a tragedy that Esperanza came to Renae and that Renae was seen as the best place to go,” McCarty said.

McCarty said he didn’t dispute the results of Esperanza’s autopsy. Renae Fayant was suffering from a severe mental health episode affecting her ability to care for herself and others, and the level of care for Esperanza went down dramatically in July 2019.

“I don’t know how you could have a more documented history of why she wasn’t capable of being responsible for a child,” McCarty said, noting that there was no intent to harm.

The attorney said he recognized that there had to be some punishment but questioned whether a harsh sentence would serve as a deterrent to others.

“This is a tragedy all the way around, but imposing the high end (of prison time) won’t serve anyone or bring Esperanza back,” McCarty said.

Stoltenburg called this case one of the more difficult sentencings he’s had to handle in his time on the bench, and he considered Renae Fayant’s mental health, rehabilitation and punishment.

Stoltenburg disagreed that a sentence wouldn’t have a deterrent effect, saying he needed to send a message to caregivers that there will be serious consequences for neglect. “No child should have to suffer and die as this child did,” the judge said.

No single act caused Esperanza’s death, he added. “This was a pattern course of conduct … that caused Esperanza to not be here with us today.”

But Stoltenburg said emails from Renae Fayant to Courtney Fayant showed a pattern of deceit on Renae Fayant’s part, including claims that Esperanza was getting ready to go to school and that the girl couldn’t visit her mother because she was seeing a doctor and was in the hospital.

Stoltenburg said there’s no record of Renae Fayant ever taking Esperanza to a doctor or the hospital, despite the fact that the defendant took herself and her son to the doctor on numerous occasions and knew that Esperanza was delayed in development.

The judge said the extreme dehydration, malnutrition and failure to thrive that killed Esperanza were the “direct results of this defendant’s neglect and care of this child. … Children are treasures and should be treated as such.”

Stoltenburg said Renae Fayant failed in her duty and obligation to the child, and the tragedy demands justice.

He then sentenced her to 75 years in the state women’s prison, with credit for 781 days of pretrial detention.

Renae Fayant must pay court-appointed attorney fees and $106.50 in court costs, remain law abiding, and follow the rules and regulations of the South Dakota Board of Pardons and Paroles. She also cannot have any unsupervised contact with any child age 10 or younger.

She was then remanded to custody for transport to prison.

Nelson said he believed the outcome of Renae Fayant’s case was appropriate.

“Justice was delivered today, and she was held accountable for her actions in the death of the child. Law enforcement worked hard during the investigation, and I’m pleased to bring her matter to a conclusion. I believe the outcome was appropriate,” Nelson said Wednesday.

Contact Jill Fier at [email protected]