On February 3, 2019, Serenity Dennard (9) was playing in the gym at the Black Hills Children’s Home in Rapid City, SD. The bio for the Children’s Home says “We empower children to overcome the trauma that has affected their lives and guide families toward strength and safety.“
Serenity had recently been placed in the home. After she was given up by unstable birth parents, she had been adopted by Chad Dennard and his wife at the time, Darcie. Chad and Darcie divorced and Chad remarried a woman named KaSandra. They became a blended family of three children and they also had their own newborn baby.
Serenity had been diagnosed with reactive detachment disorder, a condition in which children do not feel secure with familial relationships and can act out as a result. She was also diagnosed with disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, a condition marked by mood swings. She often attempted to run away from the family home.
Chad and KaSandra said Serenity was referred to the children’s home after a period of worsening behaviors that included running away multiple times, instability in relationships with other children and the potential for self-harm. She began residing at the home in July 2018 for what is typically a 14-month admission.
Runaway prevention was part of the reason for her placement at the home and was part of her treatment plan.
At around 10.45am on February 3, another child at the home created a disturbance. Serenity used this distraction as an opportunity to escape while the staff members were occupied. She had tried to run away one week before her final escape and was placed on a protocol of “arm’s length only” monitoring. But for some reason, the strict runaway-prevention effort was ended a day before February 3.
The last sighting of Serenity after she left the gym was at 11am by someone who was dropping a child off at the home. She was near the cattle guard on the driveway.
Staff the home did not call 911 for almost TWO hours after Serenity escaped. A 911 call was placed at 12.26pm to Pennington County Dispatch.
“We have been reviewing the events of Sunday and have confirmed that the 911 call was placed at 12:26,” Bill Colson, executive director of the home said. “When Serenity left staff sight on Sunday, we immediately conducted a thorough search of our grounds and buildings. When we were unable to find Serenity we called law enforcement.”
Law Enforcement arrived on the scene at 12.46pm. By 1:16 p.m., four deputies were on site. At 1:28 they requested assistance from Pennington County Search and Rescue. 35 people showed up to search for Serenity.
At 4.57pm on February 3, the Sheriff’s office released an alert to the media about the search for Serenity.
The search for that night was called off at 10.30pm. They started looking again on February 4 at 7am. Pennington County Sheriff’s Office issued an Endangered Missing Advisory notifying public of Serenity’s disappearance.
Over 200 people kept searching with dogs and no sign of Serenity was found. On February 5, the Sheriff’s office issued a statement: “If Serenity was outside, it’s unlikely she survived. We have not ruled out the possibility that she found someplace warm to shelter or that someone picked her up. We still have an active investigation and will follow up on all leads.”
The weather was freezing – around 5 degrees – with snow.
On Wednesday February 6, the Sheriff requested special dog teams from Iowa, Wyoming and Colorado. The dogs were trained to located deceased persons. These dogs find it hard to detect scent in frigid conditions.
The search for Serenity went on for months.
“It’s frustrating to people that we haven’t found her,” Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom said. “It’s frustrating to us that we haven’t found her. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop looking.”
As of August 2019, the Sheriff’s office had chased 195 leads in 15 states, conducted 440 interviews and executed six search warrants.
In November 2019, online footage of a young child was captured on a Ring doorbell in Harriet Creek Ranch, Texas. The child appeared to be begging for help and many people suggested that the child bore resemblance to Serenity. Serenity’s family viewed the footage and said that it was not their child.
February 3, 2020, marks the one-year anniversary of Serenity’s disappearance. Despite a search involving over 1,200 people and 4,500 miles of woods being searched, no trace of her has been found. The working theory for Law Enforcement is that Serenity ran into the woods, got lost and died from hypothermia.
Since her disappearance, the Black Hills Children’s Home has been cited by state and federal regulators 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 charge 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.
Deputy Jamin Hartland, the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office lead detective on the case, said the investigation is the most extensive in Pennington County history, and so far has shown no evidence of an abduction or other form of foul play.
“In this investigation, as in any investigation, obviously we can’t rule out any possibility until we know exactly what happened to Serenity,” Hartland told News Watch. “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.”
Serenity’s family made this statement:
“Serenity I love you, come home to us we miss you.”
“We will never stop looking, we will never stop fighting. We want you home, we hope that you’re safe, that you’re okay right now. I just want you to know that you’re loved and you’re cherished and we just want you home.”
“If you could come home, stay here and not leave, and try your hardest not to run away because we miss you.”
“I love you. We have fought a lot but if we could go back we would change that and I would like her to come back.”
Serenity was 9 years old when she went missing. She weighed 96lbs and was 4’7. She was wearing a long sleeved gray shirt with flowers, blue jeans and black snow boots.