Foster care breakdown: $3M settlement in deaths of 3-year-old Georgia twins

Payton and Raelynn Keyes died in 2019 while in foster care after they wandered off and became trapped in a car on a hot day in South Georgia. Her biological parents sued the state of Georgia, claiming it failed to adequately evaluate and monitor the twins' foster mother. The state paid the family $3 million to settle the case in 2021. Photo Credit: GoFundMe.com

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Payton and Raelynn Keyes died in 2019 while in foster care after they wandered off and became trapped in a car on a hot day in South Georgia. Her biological parents sued the state of Georgia, claiming it failed to adequately evaluate and monitor the twins' foster mother. The state paid the family $3 million to settle the case in 2021. Photo Credit: GoFundMe.com

When 3-year-old twins Raelynn and Payton Keyes wandered off and died after getting trapped in a scorching-hot car, investigators in South Georgia blamed their foster mother, charging her and her boyfriend with second-degree murder and cruelty to children.

But a lawsuit filed last year blamed their 2019 deaths on the state for missing or ignoring warning signs that, if acted on, could have saved the twins.

Last August, Georgia officials settled the suit, agreeing to pay $3 million to the girls’ family, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned. The settlement was one of the largest of its kind paid out by the state and stands as a record of failure by the agency charged with protecting roughly 11,900 foster children across Georgia.

An AJC review of the lawsuit filings, the settlement agreement and other documents related to the case reveals the challenges the Georgia Department of Human Services has enforcing foster care regulations and the potential hazard that causes for children in the state’s care.

The lawsuit filed by Brian and Skye Keyes claimed the girls’ foster mother, Claudette Foster, failed in nearly every capacity to be an adequate caretaker for their children. However, they placed blame on DHS for allowing her to foster the children at all, saying the agency did not investigate thoroughly enough to determine whether she was capable in that role.

The complaint said the Keyeses had raised concerns about Foster and claimed that she was “unfit” to oversee children. It alleged that she was negligent in allowing her boyfriend, Sam Edwards, to care for the children when she wasn’t around, and pointed to her misuse of alcohol as another example of her irresponsibility.

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Months into her role as the twins’ foster mother, she was booked into the Liberty County jail on misdemeanor charges of driving under the influence and weaving over the roadway. She was later released on an $1,800 bond. The twins died less than two months later, on Sept. 29, 2019.

The complaint said DHS “had a duty to properly and sufficiently investigate, manage, respond to, and resolve reports of abuse, neglect, lack of supervision, and/or maltreatment by the foster parent, but negligently failed to do so.”

For experts, the lingering question is why the children were not moved to a different home when questions about Foster’s abilities first arose.

“Sometimes there are bad eggs that have slipped through the crack,” said John DeGarmo, a foster care expert and the director of the Atlanta-based Foster Care Institute, which helps to recruit and train foster parents. “And some people should not be foster parents. It sounds like Claudette Foster should not have been a foster parent.”

Families in crisis

The brief lives of the twins were punctuated with repeated stresses and crises, according to documents from their DHS Division of Family and Children Services case files.

Both girls tested positive for drugs at birth, the public records said. When they were 2 years old, they were taken by their mother to live with their grandmother after a case manager found their home unfit for children due to “extreme clutter and filth.”

When additional concerns of domestic violence and substance abuse within the family emerged months later, a judge in Bryan County ordered the twins as well as their six- and eight-year-old siblings to be taken into the care of the state.

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“Children enter foster care because they or their families are in crisis,” according to experts from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “Foster care is meant to be a temporary solution that ends once a parent can get their life back on track or a relative, guardian or adoptive family agrees to raise the child involved.”

On March 21, 2019, they were placed in the care of a foster parent, Claudette Foster, by a private child placement agency, Morningstar Children and Family Services. Georgia contracts with roughly a hundred agencies licensed to pair children with foster parents across the state. At the time, Morningstar, based in Brunswick, was tasked with handling interviews, background checks and home visits for those caring for the children.

Throughout the twins’ placement with her, Foster shirked state guidelines on where she could take the children and who was allowed to watch over them, according to records. Two days before the twins’ deaths, a DFCS case manager alerted Morningstar to “the concern that the children reported spending time at Ms. Foster paramour’s home on the weekends.”

The children told a Morningstar case manager that Foster had taken them over to Edwards’ home several times for overnight visits, though the home hadn’t been approved or inspected by the child placement agency, records show. A daycare provider told case managers Edwards was typically the person to pick up and drop off the twins. A DFCS case manager wrote that she did not believe Morningstar staff were doing unannounced home visits at Edwards’ home “due to only seeing the family in Ms. Foster’s home,” records show.

“In light of this knowledge, Defendant DHS failed to properly vet Sam Edwards or his home and negligently failed to ensure the children were being kept in a safe and supervised environment,” the lawsuit said.

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In a DFCS case log, Morningstar staff acknowledged that they were aware of the children spending time with Edwards and had conducted a background check on him. The document said it wasn’t clear how often Edwards was involved with the family, but Foster was told not to stay overnight at his house or to leave the children unsupervised with him.

On Sept. 27, 2019, a state case manager notified Morningstar of these concerns. But two days later, Foster and the children had spent another night at Edwards’ home in Hinesville. According to the lawsuit, Foster left the children unsupervised in the morning while she took a nap and had “not checked on them nor seen them since the night before.”

It was over 90 degrees outside that day. At some point, the twins wandered into the home’s backyard and climbed into a tan Kia Spectra, trapping themselves inside. Investigators would later pinpoint the time to 10 a.m. using a neighbor’s surveillance video that captured the toddlers’ final steps.

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Claudette Foster was arrested and charged with second-degree murder for the 2019 deaths of Raelynn and Payton Keyes. She was the twins's foster mother when they wandered into a parked car and died after they became trapped on a hot day.

Claudette Foster was arrested and charged with second-degree murder for the 2019 deaths of Raelynn and Payton Keyes. She was the twins's foster mother when they wandered into a parked car and died after they became trapped on a hot day.

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Claudette Foster was arrested and charged with second-degree murder for the 2019 deaths of Raelynn and Payton Keyes. She was the twins's foster mother when they wandered into a parked car and died after they became trapped on a hot day.

Some three hours passed before the girls were discovered, motionless, in the car. Foster dialed 911.

“An EMS first responder came into the residence and asked Ms. Foster for the children’s birthdays to which Ms. Foster was unable to provide,” a police report said. “EMS also asked Ms. Foster if she could give the proper spelling of their first and last names to which she stated she was not sure how to spell them, but tried to remember their names the best she could.”

Hinesville police charged Foster with murder and she turned herself into the Liberty County jail on Oct. 14, 2019, roughly two weeks after the children’s deaths. She was jailed for almost two months before being released on bond. Neither Foster nor her attorney responded to requests to speak to the AJC for this story. Foster’s case is still pending and no date has been set for her trial.

‘Where do these kids go?’

Rules governing Georgia’s system require a licensed foster home to be re-evaluated annually. The re-evaluation process calls for two home visits from case workers as well as a review of personal documents like driver’s licenses and proof of insurance.

Georgia DFCS can re-evaluate the status of a foster home before the 12-month period ends if the foster parent moves or gets married, or if there are concerns that the foster child is not being taken care of appropriately.

The state’s rules say that a foster parent must report any changes that could impact their license or status as a foster parent. That includes changes to the number of people living in the home, an increase in family stressors or significant criminal charges, including felonies, battery cases where the victim is a minor, and sexual offenses.

However, the state does not require less-serious offenses, such as misdemeanors, to be reported. A DHS spokeswoman would not answer an AJC question about whether Foster’s DUI charge would have disqualified her. The agency’s policy manual for criminal record checks does not list misdemeanor DUI as a disqualifier.

Judith Schagrin, a retired child welfare administrator for the Social Services Department in Baltimore County, Maryland, said in her state, the DUI charge is “exactly the sort of thing we would want to know about,” adding that even a misdemeanor could indicate a degree of recklessness.

“It would have led to a discussion and potentially a safety evaluation,” she said.

Georgia state Rep. Sharon Cooper, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee, said she was not aware that a misdemeanor DUI charge would not raise a red flag about a foster parent and that she is reviewing the issue.

“It doesn’t seem unreasonable that that would be reported,” said the Marietta Republican.

DeGarmo noted that a shortage in available foster homes has at times led to some rules being enforced less frequently.

“There are not enough homes,” DeGarmo said. “So maybe Claudette Foster was able to continue caring for these children, despite the red flags that were up, because DFCS was desperate at that time for a home for these children without moving them.”

In 2010, there were about 6,900 Georgia children in foster homes, according to a national study by The Imprint analyzing foster care capacity. Those numbers climbed over the next several years. By 2018, the number of children in the system had doubled, with close to 15,000 children in foster homes. In 2019, when the twins entered the system, there were more than 14,100 kids in homes.

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DeGarmo said DFCS and many private child placement agencies were struggling to recruit foster parents to keep up with the ballooning number of children entering the system.

“Georgia was facing a real crisis in our state because of the opioid epidemic that was strangling our nation,” he said. “More kids coming into foster care, not enough foster parents. Where do these kids go? Into a system that couldn’t handle it.”

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3-year-old twins Raelynn and Payton Keyes wandered off and died when they became trapped in a vehicle parked at this Hinesville home in South Georgia. (Lewis Levine / Savannah Morning News)

Credit: Lewis Levine

3-year-old twins Raelynn and Payton Keyes wandered off and died when they became trapped in a vehicle parked at this Hinesville home in South Georgia. (Lewis Levine / Savannah Morning News)

Credit: Lewis Levine

Combined ShapeCaption
3-year-old twins Raelynn and Payton Keyes wandered off and died when they became trapped in a vehicle parked at this Hinesville home in South Georgia. (Lewis Levine / Savannah Morning News)

Credit: Lewis Levine

Credit: Lewis Levine

In an emailed response to the AJC’s questions, Morningstar CEO Beth VanDerbeck said the child-placement agency did not know of any rule violation committed by Foster prior to the twins’ deaths, but “would have followed the regulatory requirements and reporting process as outlined for all foster parents” if they had been made aware.

The child resource center voluntarily forfeited its license to serve as a child placement agency on Sept. 30, 2020. The company blamed the pandemic and said its impact had led to “an inability to recruit, train, and process new foster families.”

In a statement confirming the $3 million settlement, DHS called Raelynn and Payton’s deaths a “tragedy.”

“Accidents like these affect those who were the closest to Payton and Raelynn, along with every member of our DHS family,” the agency said in a statement.

Neither the Keyes family nor their attorney responded to requests to be interviewed for this story.

While the fates of the family’s other children are not clear, after the twins’ deaths, the state swiftly removed the older siblings from Foster’s care.

--Data specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this story.


Our Reporting

The AJC started investigating the case of the Keyes twins’ deaths after acquiring information about the state’s $3 million settlement through the Georgia Open Records Act. The AJC reviewed court records, regulatory files and conducted interviews with foster care experts and policymakers to better understand the breakdowns in the state’s foster care system. The AJC continues to investigate the foster care system. If you have information, contact reporters Asia Simone Burns (Asia.Burns@ajc.com or 404-526-2003) or Maya Prabhu (maya.prabhu@ajc.com or 404-526-5823).