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Four days after 9-year-old Serenity Dennard ran away from a residential youth facility in rural Pennington County, the facility is focused on supporting its grieving staff and youth.

"We continue to give our staff and the children we serve total support," Bill Colson, executive director of the Children's Home Society, said Wednesday.

Youth at the Black Hills Children's Home, located near Rockerville, already receive therapy since the facility provides schooling and intensive therapy in both outpatient and inpatient (meaning people live on site) settings for 4- to 14-year-olds struggling with abuse, trauma, and mental and behavioral health, according to its website.

Staff at the Children's Home, which includes mental health professionals, are being offered both individual and group therapy to process their missing client, Colson said. 

Dennard went missing around 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning when she ran away from the Children's Home while playing inside the facility's gym, Colson said. 

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

Other staff soon arrived to find Dennard, but to no avail, Colson said. 

The sheriff's office said Tuesday that Dennard was last seen at 11 a.m. Sunday walking north on South Rockerville Road. The office said that a couple, a man and a woman in their late 20s or early 30s, were the last people to have seen her.  

"I'm very proud of our staff and I don't think anybody was negligent. They did what they needed to do," Colson said. 

"Flight risk is a common concern but is a rare occurrence," he said. 

Colson explained that doors are locked from the outside to prevent unauthorized entry, but they're unlocked from the inside.

"We are not a lockdown facility," he said, explaining that similar facilities also have unlocked exits. 

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Facilities that are locked from the inside include some jails, prisons, mental health hospitals and care centers for people with dementia. They often include elaborate systems, such as video cameras and human monitors, to make sure people can escape in case of a fire, riot or other emergency. 

"The children we serve are closely supervised by staff 24-7," Colson said. 

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

"Once this crisis has passed, we will review our practices to be certain they are what they need to be, and that is our typical approach," Colson said. 

Colson said investigators have interviewed the center's staff and students, and that he's incredibly thankful for the work of the Pennington County Sheriff's Office and all other agencies involved in searching for Dennard. They're "incredible folks," he said. 

In addition to the staff and students, investigators also interviewed Dennard's family and people who live near the Children's Home, said Helene Duhamel, spokeswoman for the sheriff's office. More than 60 people were interviewed. 

Deputies searched the Children's Home four times to make sure Dennard wasn't hiding inside, Duhamel said. After contacting neighbors, most allowed deputies to search their home three times. Missing person flyers were also distributed. 

An estimated 235 people, plus dogs, searched for Dennard between Sunday and Tuesday, Duhamel said. On Sunday, about 35 people carrying thermal imaging devices and dogs were on hand. Sheriff Kevin Thom previously explained that it is best to start searches with a smaller group to make sure people don't trample trails and scents for the dogs. A plane couldn't fly Sunday due to snow and low fog, Duhamel said. On Monday, 90 people, dogs and a plane searched for Dennard. On Tuesday, dogs and 110 people searched. 

Duhamel said while searches focused on a one-mile radius on Tuesday, "a much wider area" was searched throughout the three days, including locations out to Highway 16 and 40. She said drones weren't used because after the Civil Air Patrol plane flew in the area, officials didn't think drones would help because of the snow cover. 

Deputies continue to investigate and remain at the Children's Home, but no active search was happened on Wednesday. Duhamel said people and dogs, including some that specialize in finding dead bodies, will search on Saturday and Sunday. 

Colson said he hopes Dennard found a warm place to hide or was picked up by someone with good intentions. 

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— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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