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Search continues for missing girl, 9, who ran from South Dakota facility

Serenity Dennard

ROCKERVILLE, S.D. - A girl who has been missing since Sunday morning ran away from staff at a residential youth home near Rockerville, just south of Rapid City, the organization’s executive director said Monday, Feb. 4.

Serenity Dennard, 9, was playing in the gym inside the Children’s Home Society, Bill Colson said as he stood in front of the search and rescue command center during an outdoor news conference at the facility.

Dennard and three other children were being supervised by two staff members when one of the other children ran away, Colson said. As a staffer ran after that child, Dennard then took off herself. Because the remaining staffer was still supervising two other children, they stayed put and called for help rather than follow Dennard.

Other staff soon arrived to find her, but to no avail.

"By the time we could get on her trail she was out of sight," Colson said.

Colson said staff then immediately called 911 for help.

The Children's Home Society is a private nonprofit that provides residential treatment and programs for children with emotional or behavioral needs, and victims of domestic violence, abuse and neglect, or other trauma. Colson said due to privacy concerns, he can't say how Dennard arrived at the facility or of which program she is part.

"Our job is to work with young kids that need help and we’re very careful about keeping track of them and where they are at all times. Unfortunately once in a while they get away from us. It’s very, very rare. I don’t remember another situation like this one where a child has been gone this long," he said.

"That's not uncommon that kids try to get away once in a while, and that's why we supervise them closely," Colson said.

A staff member can supervise up to six children at a time, but the Children's Home Society tries to have a lower ratio, Colson said. When Dennard ran away, it was a lower ratio of one staffer per two children.

When Dennard was first reporting missing, a smaller group of search and rescue personnel arrived, said Kevin Thom, Pennington County Sheriff. He said it's best to start with a smaller group so the dogs can pick up a scent or track.

"You get too many people in there, it gets chaotic and all of a sudden you trample any potential trails or evidence," he said.

Dogs alerted to "areas of interest," said Tammy Stadel, team leader for Pennington County Search and Rescue. "Unfortunately, none of those leads have turned anything up for us."

More staff arrived later and searched until 10 p.m Sunday, Thom said. While a plane couldn't be used Sunday due to the snow, a plane with the Civil Air Patrol was circling the skies about the facility Monday morning.

"We have the amount of help we need right now,” Thom said of the 64 people, plus dogs, searching for Dennard by foot, plane and land vehicles on Monday. In addition to Pennington County deputies and search and rescue, Custer County Search and Rescue, fire departments and other agencies are assisting in the search.

Dennard was last seen on the road in front of the facility, Thom said.

Thom said while no situation is being ruled out, such as Dennard being picked up by someone driving on the road, there is no evidence she was taken by anyone. Amber Alerts require a suspect or suspect vehicle.

"We don't have that in this case, indicating that she was abducted or anything," he said.

Thom said team members have contacted the few neighbors that surround the rural facility. "We encourage them to check around a haystack, a wood pile, in their outbuildings."

Colson said it's unlikely that Dennard arranged to have someone pick her up.

"It would be very unlikely for her to have the ability to contact a family member without our staff knowing about it and being present for the conversation," he said.

The temperature was one degree Monday morning and in the negatives Sunday night.

"Obviously we're concerned about someone freezing to death," Thom said.

Dennard is white, 4’7” tall, 90 pounds, with blue eyes and shoulder length dirty blonde hair. She was last seen wearing only a long-sleeved grey shirt with flowers, blue jeans and snow boots. Serenity is from Sturgis and may be trying to get to her family.

Anyone with information about Dennard is asked to contact the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office at (605) 394-6115.