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Serenity Dennard disappearance still a haunting mystery despite a yearlong search and investigation

RAPID CITY, S.D. – Despite a search by more than 1,200 people covering 4,500 miles of woodlands, and an investigation tracking down more than 220 leads and involving 465 interviews, Serenity Dennard remains missing and her fate remains a mystery.

Serenity was 9 on Feb. 3, 2019, when she ran away on a cold Sunday morning from the Black Hills Children’s Home, a residential youth treatment facility located near Rockerville in Pennington County.

Though witnesses saw her run off, and a search began almost immediately, Serenity has never been seen again and no evidence of her death has been discovered.

Over the past year, the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office has led an aggressive, two-pronged attempt to find Serenity — an investigative track that has sought to rule out foul play and search nationwide for Serenity; and the search track that has engaged 1,200 trained personnel from more than 65 agencies using scent and cadaver dogs, aircraft and thermal devices to look for Serenity’s body or any evidence.

Pennington County authorities have not ruled nothing out, but their working theory is that Serenity ran into the woods, got lost and froze to death or died of hypothermia.

Yet until Serenity or any evidence is found, her disappearance will remain a mystery.

Serenity was known to run away frequently from her family home in Sturgis, and runaway prevention was part of the reason for her placement and part of her treatment plan at Black Hills Children’s Home. Serenity tried to run away one week before her final escape and was placed on a protocol of “arm’s length only” monitoring. But for reasons unexplained, the strict runaway-prevention effort was ended a day or two before her Feb. 3 escape, according to Serenity’s adoptive father and his wife, who are her primary caretakers.

The children’s home, run by the non-profit Children’s Home Society, was cited by state and federal regulators after Serenity’s disappearance for waiting 80 minutes to call 911, for having radios that were on different channels and for lacking planning and training in runaway prevention.

Two people with direct physical oversight of Serenity at the time of her disappearance were fired after she ran away, according to Children’s Home Society Executive Director Michelle Lavallee. But the on-call supervisor who advised employees on the scene to search longer on their own before calling 911 remains employed, as does the director of the home.

Sheriff’s officials say Serenity had only a 3-minute to 5-minute head start on the first searchers. Two eyewitnesses who saw Serenity run away reported it and then searched for her. The eyewitnesses lost sight of Serenity for only 3 to 5 minutes before trying to follow Serenity’s path.

Deputy Jamin Hartland, the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office lead detective on the case, said the investigation so far has shown no evidence of an abduction or other form of foul play.

“We just have no solid evidence thus far to suggest that this was an abduction or anything other than a girl who ran away from a facility and has yet to be found,” he said.

Hartland and Sheriff Kevin Thom say it is highly unlikely that Serenity was taken by a stranger or someone driving by.

“I can’t even begin to calculate the odds that someone who would be willing to violently abduct a child happened by on a rural western South Dakota road within the few minutes they had to do that and successfully abducted her,” Hartland said.

Cadaver dogs searching for her have picked up scents, but it is unknown if the odors emanated from Serenity.

Dennard, his wife, KaSandra Dennard, and Serenity’s adoptive mother, Darcie Gentry, all expressed shock that such an intense, sustained and expansive search has not found Serenity. The anguish of not knowing what happened or where she is has led them all to hope that someday, somehow, Serenity might return to them.

“We’d take any news at this point,” Gentry said in an interview at her home east of Rapid City. “Her bedroom is all set up for her, waiting for her to come home. Sometimes I just go in there and I cry.”

After being given up by her birth parents who were unstable, and moving through more than a dozen foster homes, Serenity was diagnosed with reactive detachment disorder, a condition in which children do not feel secure with familial relationships and can act out as a result.

Chad and KaSandra Dennard said Serenity was referred to the children’s home after a period of worsening behaviors that included running away and the potential for self-harm. She began residing at the home in July 2018.

According to Deputy Hartland, Serenity was playing in the gymnasium at the children’s home just before 11 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019, with two staff members and six children present.
Serenity and another girl made an impromptu plan that the girl would distract staff members so Serenity could run away, Hartland said. Serenity used the distraction to open the outside door and run away. No one from the children’s home gave immediate chase.

Serenity, dressed in jeans, a long-sleeve shirt and snow boots, ran north across a campus path and into the main parking lot of the complex.

Authorities know this because after Serenity left the gym, a woman and her granddaughter saw her, Hartland said. The pair had dropped off a child at the northernmost building on the campus and saw Serenity run through the parking lot and stumble on the cattle guard just short of the exit onto Rockerville Road.

While watching, the grandmother reversed the vehicle back to the main building, got out and rang a doorbell to alert a cook inside that a child was running away. The cook was equipped with a radio to alert other employees, but the radio was on a different channel, which slowed the initial staff response, Lavallee said.

The granddaughter remained in the car and watched as Serenity, now walking, headed north on Rockerville Road.

After walking about 50 yards north of the complex entrance, Serenity went out of sight of the granddaughter. When the grandmother returned, the pair drove out of the children’s home complex and followed Serenity’s path north on Rockerville Road.

They never saw Serenity again, and they never saw anyone or any vehicles, Hartland said.
The witnesses said about three to five minutes elapsed from when they lost sight of Serenity to when they drove onto Rockerville Road to begin searching.

Lavallee said that the on-call supervisor was contacted at home and advised staff to continue searching for 15 minutes more before calling 911.

When that supervisor arrived on scene about 80 minutes later, 911 still had not been called, so the supervisor then called authorities to report the runaway, Lavallee said.

The first night, Hartland and other deputies went door-to-door to all the homes in the area, about 40 in all, trying to see if anyone had seen Serenity, but also getting a feel for any unusual responses, Hartland said.

Detectives interviewed children’s home employees and residents, both sets of Serenity’s adoptive parents and her birth parents, and none are considered suspects, Hartland said.
Another key component of the investigation, he said, was determining whether Serenity could have contacted anyone outside the home before her escape, either by phone or computer. Investigators found nothing to indicate she had done either, Hartland said.

The weather turned bad the day Serenity ran away, with temperatures below freezing and snow that fell and stayed for several weeks, hampering the search and reducing the chances Serenity could survive outside for more than a few hours, 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,” Thom said.

Thom said cadaver dogs have alerted to scent, but it is unknown if the scent originated with Serenity, and so far nothing has been found.

Thom noted that his department has an ongoing case in which experienced elk hunter Larry Genzlinger, 66, of Howard, was hunting near Deerfield Lake in the Black Hills on Oct. 1 and has not been found despite an aggressive search.

Gail Schmidt, chief of the Rockerville Volunteer Fire Department, has helped lead numerous searches for Serenity and is believed to have spent more time in the woods looking than anyone else. As of early January 2020, she had personally logged 63 days of searching and had covered an estimated 375 miles on foot.

Schmidt said searching is difficult in the region around the children’s home owing to the sheer variety of terrain and topography. The region is also home to numerous downed, blackened trees from the Battle Creek Fire in 2002.

“My explanation for how we could have covered so many miles and haven’t found her is that we just haven’t gotten to her yet,” she said.

Lavallee became executive director of the Children’s Home Society in late September, replacing longtime director Bill Colson, who retired in 2019 after a decade leading the agency.
Lavallee said improving safety for children at the Children’s Home Society residential facilities became a top priority after Serenity’s disappearance and a scathing review of policies by the state Department of Social Services and the federal Center for Medicaid Services in April.

The society has complied with all the directives put forward by the state and federal regulators, Lavallee said.

Now, 911 will be called anytime a staff member loses “line of sight” on a child and radios are programmed to the same channel.

A new phone system has a button to alert employees inside and outside the home that an emergency exists, and a designated supervisor must be on campus at all times and would serve as the search coordinator in an emergency.

Runaway drills are conducted monthly in Rockerville and more frequently than before in Sioux Falls. New employees undergo runaway training at the time of hiring, Lavallee said.

The society plans to install cameras outside the Rockerville facility in early February, and at that time new doors will be installed that can be opened only from the inside with a key card or else an alarm will sound and a 15-second delay will engage to prevent unauthorized departures.

“You won’t see this happen again today,” Lavallee said.

Lavallee said the state DSS recommended the termination of the two children’s home employees; she would not discuss other personnel decisions or anything related to Serenity’s treatment, including if or why the “arm’s length” monitoring ended.

Lavallee said she and other society employees are deeply saddened over Serenity’s disappearance and that, “Serenity remains in our hearts every day.”

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