RAPID CITY, S.D. – When a little girl ran away from a state facility in the massive and rugged Black Hills National Forest, her disappearance sparked an enormous search and pressured the facility to change its handling of missing children.
Black Hills National Forest is a major tourist spot, with millions of visitors annually. “It consists of 1.2 million acres of forested hills and mountains, approximately 110 miles long and 70 miles wide,” the USDA Forest Service reports. You can click here to see a breathtaking video of the Black Hills.
One of the most visited landmarks in the U.S. is in the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, where roughly two million visitors a year venture. Six miles northeast of this popular attraction, a nine-year-old girl ran out of a children’s home and vanished into the wilderness.
Serenity June Dennard was born on May 12, 2009, but her life was far from ideal. State officials removed her from her biological parents’ care when she was a toddler. They are currently in prison. Serenity was subsequently placed in about a dozen foster homes and suffered lasting trauma.
Chad Dennard and Darcie Gentry adopted Serenity in October 2014 after fostering her for several months. They are no longer together, and Dennard is married to KaSandra Dennard. Dennard has primary custody of Serenity, and Gentry has secondary.
Serenity was diagnosed with severe reactive attachment disorder, “a rare but serious condition in which an infant or young child doesn’t establish healthy attachments with parents or caregivers,” according to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
She was also diagnosed with disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health says it is a condition in which “children or adolescents experience persistent irritability, anger, and frequent, intense temper outbursts.” The disorder caused Serenity to exhibit severe behavioral problems, including running away and threats of self-harm.
The Dennards put Serenity in outpatient therapy for years, but it failed to help the girl, and they no longer felt safe with her in their home. In July 2018, they sent Serenity to live at a state children’s home.
The Children’s Home Society has two residential treatment centers – one in Sioux Falls and the Rockerville facility, where Serenity stayed.
According to South Dakota News Digest, Black Hills Children’s Home (BHCH), 24100 S. Rockerville Rd, houses 36 inpatient children and receives about $8 million annually in Medicaid funding. Depending on the treatment plan, it can cost nearly $300 per day to accommodate a child.
BHCH educates and treats children between ages 4 and 13 with behavioral and emotional disorders. Most of the children have a history of abuse and neglect.
Serenity arrived at BHCH in July 2018 as part of a 14-month program and a September 2019 discharge date. She saw her parents several times a month for visits and family therapy sessions. Additionally, Serenity spoke to them on the phone twice weekly.
Dennard visited his daughter on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019, and said it was a typical visit, and Serenity seemed to be doing well. However, she often hid from staff and threatened to run away. Serenity ran away one week before his visit, but the employees caught her.
Around 10:45 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019, Serenity, 9, played in the facility’s gymnasium with six other children. Two staff members supervised the children while they played.
About 10 minutes later, Serenity and another girl had devised an escape plan where the girl would distract the staff members by running out of the gym and back into the main building. One member chased after Serenity’s accomplice while the other stayed to supervise the remaining children.
Serenity opened the outside door and ran from the premises into 15-degree weather, wearing only a long-sleeve shirt, jeans, and snow boots. She did not have a winter coat. The staff member who stayed in the gym could not chase after her but called for help.
After bolting from the gym, Serenity ran north across a campus path to the main parking lot. A woman and her granddaughter had dropped off another child at BHCH and were heading toward the exit at Rockerville Road. They saw Serenity running through the parking lot and stumble on the cattle guard at the main entrance.
The woman drove back to the building and rang a doorbell to alert an employee that a child was running away. The employee had a radio to alert other staff members, but it was on a different channel.
Meanwhile, the granddaughter remained in the car and watched Serenity slow down and walk north on Rockerville Road and out of sight.
When the woman returned to the car, she exited the campus, headed north on Rockerville Road, and drove around for a while but did not see Serenity. She and her granddaughter returned to BHCH and retraced their route, but they never saw the girl again. They also said they did not see any other vehicles on the road.
BHCH’s policy regarding a missing child was to notify the police within “a reasonable time.” But the staff threw that policy out the window.
A few employees began searching for Serenity. One contacted the on-call supervisor at home, who advised the employees to continue searching for 15 minutes and then call 911. However, when the supervisor arrived 80 minutes later, no one contacted the authorities. The supervisor called 911 at 12:26 p.m., nearly 90 minutes after Serenity fled. The children’s society never explained the reason for the long delay. They wasted valuable time, and their actions are questionable, to say the least.
Authorities conducted an extensive search for Serenity, but it produced no clues to her whereabouts or evidence of an abduction. Searchers had to battle rugged terrain and severe weather.
To give you a perspective of what searchers endured:
This location is near the children’s home. You can zoom out to get a better view.
Per a news release from Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom, the search team included more than 1,500 personnel from 66 agencies who logged more than 6,000 cumulative miles during 220 separate search attempts, South Dakota News Watch reported.
Serenity’s family and the police believe that Serenity became lost and froze to death or died of hypothermia. That night, temperatures dipped to below zero, and snow fell that remained for weeks. Police said they do not believe someone picked her up or abducted her.
Thom told South Dakota News Watch: “In terms of Serenity specifically, she’s very small, she’s 4-foot-9, roughly 90-some pounds, so if she’s in the woods and got lost, at the point you’re becoming hypothermic, there’s the potential that you find a spot to curl up to get warm, under a rock ledge or next to a log,” Thom said. “Experienced searchers will tell you that it’s not uncommon to walk past people multiple times in an area once they get hidden and you can be a few feet from someone and walk right past them.”
According to Thom, his office consulted a pediatrician on whether Serenity could have walked far in harsh winter conditions. Considering Serenity’s age, size, and the weather, she could have trekked three to four miles from the children’s home, which would put her close to Rockerville. The doctor’s professional opinion broadened the area for searchers to comb.
In March 2019, winter weather struck again, halting official search efforts. However, local volunteers familiar with the area unsuccessfully searched for the girl.
A little over a year after Serenity vanished, a person in Las Vegas captured a photo of an older man with a preteen girl similar in appearance to Serenity.
The person who took the photo said the man and girl were “making out” in a department store. He spotted the pair a few days later, and took a picture of the vehicle. However, Las Vegas police questioned the man, and he claimed they were related and from South Africa. Police said the girl was not Serenity and found no evidence a crime had been committed.
Thom officially called off the search for Serenity on Jan. 28, 2021, almost two years after she fled the home.
“We’ve just kind of reached a point where we’ve searched every point that we can, in terms of where it makes sense where she could of went,” Thom told KOTA Territory News.
The case remains open.
BHCH was heavily criticized for the way it mishandled Serenity’s escape. After her previous runaway attempt, BHCH placed her on “arm’s length only” monitoring. However, the staff ended it a day or two before she fled on Feb. 3, 2019, and the children’s society never explained the reasons.
Bill Colson, executive director of the Children’s Home Society, retired in 2019. Shortly after Serenity vanished, Colson told KOTA Territory News, “Kids typically don’t do what Serenity did. So I’ll be perfectly honest. It caught us a little off guard. It caught us a bit off guard … And so we responded like we would typically respond and that is, ‘Let’s search the buildings first.’ As a result we delayed a bit in dialing 911.”
Waiting 90 minutes seems more than “a bit” of a delay when they knew the girl had no coat on when she exited the premises. Time was of the essence, yet they took their sweet time.
Michelle Lavallee took over Colson’s role as executive director. She said the two staff members supervising Serenity and the other children in the gym that day were terminated upon the South Dakota Department of Social Services (DSS) recommendation.
After an investigation by DSS and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Children’s Home Society complied with all the stipulations recommended by the agencies, Lavallee said.
First and foremost, staff must call 911 as soon as they lose “line of sight” on a child, and all radios must be on the same channel. Officials installed a new phone system with a button to alert employees about an emergency. A designated supervisor must always be on campus and serve as the search coordinator in a crisis. Runaway drills are conducted monthly, and new employees must undergo runaway training when hired. Finally, the children’s home installed state-of-the-art security cameras and new entrance doors that can only be opened from the inside with a key card. Otherwise, an alarm will sound.
“You won’t see this happen again today,” Lavallee said.
True Crime Diva’s Thoughts
Serenity’s disappearance resonated with me for many reasons, but mostly because my son was similar to her. He is now pushing 30, but during his childhood, he exhibited severe aggressive behavior, which stemmed from abuse by his father, my ex-husband. We divorced when my son was less than a year old. My son also ran away once, which was the worst time of my life. I still suffer from anxiety and depression because of that and the 10-plus years of his aggressive behavior and meltdowns. I damn near became an alcoholic, turning to booze for relief. Until you experience it, you have no idea how awful it is.
People accused my husband and me of bad parenting because they thought it came down to a misbehaving child. My friends pushed me entirely away for the same reason. In reality, my son was severely mentally ill, and we had no support.
I really feel for Serenity’s parents; they did the right thing by putting her in the children’s home. That was not an option for us. Nobody helped us for years until I found one person who did, and she changed our life for the better. I wish Serenity’s family had experienced the same thing. heart emoji
BHCH is guilty of something because of the HUGE delay in calling 911. Why didn’t the staff do as directed by the supervisor — search for another 15 minutes, then call 911? Why did it take the supervisor 80 minutes to get to the home? Usually, on-call people must live within so many miles of work. So, I find it strange that it took the supervisor that long to get to the children’s home.
Something might have happened at the children’s home, which caused Serenity to flee that day. Maybe it happened the day before or longer. After she ran, the staff used the delay to discuss everything among themselves and devise a plan for when authorities arrived.
Another scenario would be that Serenity had planned her escape but expected the staff to catch her, which is why she did not take a coat. Her father said she enjoyed people searching for her. However, the staff should have immediately gone after her. It could not have taken long for the remaining staff member in the gym to get help.
I don’t think her escape was spontaneous, as the media describes, because she had an accomplice and was known for planning runaway attempts.
The woman and her granddaughter said they never saw Serenity when they drove to look for her. But several minutes had passed before they did. Police do not believe someone picked her up or abducted her, but I still think it’s possible. It takes seconds literally to kidnap a child. And if Serenity was freezing, and she probably was, she would have accepted a ride from anyone to escape the bitter cold.
I don’t think it was Serenity in Las Vegas. But no crime had been committed? The man looks to be way too affectionate with that girl. How did they rule out Serenity? Did they do DNA tests or make a visual determination? I don’t believe that the girl in the picture was safe for a second, regardless of her identity.
I believe Serenity is no longer alive and likely died, as her family, and the police believe. Another possibility could be that an animal attacked her, but I think searchers would have found evidence of that.