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The girl who has been missing since Sunday morning ran away from staff at a residential youth home near Rockerville, the organization’s executive director said at a press conference Monday morning.

Serenity Dennard, 9, was playing in the gym inside the Black Hills Children's Home before noon, Bill Colson, executive director of the Children’s Home Society, said as he stood in front of the search and rescue command center in the parking lot of the facility on South Rockerville Road. 

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. 

"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 tries to have a lower ratio, Colson said. When Dennard ran away, it was a lower ratio of one staffer per two children. 

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. 

Dennard was last seen leaving the facility around 10:45 a.m. but a couple — a man and a woman in their late 20s or early 30s driving a pickup truck — saw her soon after, the Pennington County Sheriff's Office said in a news release Monday afternoon.

The couple was cutting wood near Foster Gulch and South Rockerville Road and spoke with staff from the Children's Home on Sunday between 10:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., the release said. They may have been the last people to have seen Denard, and deputies would like to speak with the couple to determine a timeline and learn which direction Dennard was travelling in.

When Dennard was first reported 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 more than 60 people, plus four 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, Rockerville Volunteer Fire Department, the Rapid City fire and police 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.  
Civilians should not try to search for Dennard because they could hurt themselves and hamper the search, officials said. 
 
"The last thing that we need is to have two operations occurring if somebody else were to get injured or unaccounted for," said Karl Jegeris, chief of the Rapid City Police Department. 
 
People trying to help would "significantly" harm the search plan and management, Stadel said. She said search and rescue teams use GPS to track where they've searched and are in constant communication with each other. 
 
"So when we have people who aren't trained, it just adds to our workload. We worry about their safety more than what we're doing to focus on our missing individual," she said. 
 
While crews are prepared for the weather and logistics, Stadel said, the climate does make the search and rescue effort more difficult. 
 
"It definitely impacts our operations. It's very icy out, we're in very steep terrain. So that makes it really difficult for us to search. With the snow cover it also makes it a little bit harder to find any kind of tracks, any evidence that was left over," she said. The dogs are also impacted because "scent doesn't travel, it doesn't flow as much on a warm day."
 
The temperature was 1 degree Monday morning and in the negatives Sunday night. 
 
"Obviously we're concerned about someone freezing to death," Thom said. 
 
We're "learning everything we can about the circumstance," Jegeris said, adding that staff from the Children's Home Society has been very helpful. 

"If this were to go on unsolved and she's not located, the investigation will remain a priority until she is located," he said of Dennard. 
 
"Our staff are very, very concerned and our kids that know that Serenity is gone is as well," Colson said. 
 
Dennard is white, 4 feet, 7 inches tall, 90 pounds, with blue eyes and shoulder-length dirty blonde hair. She was last seen wearing only a long-sleeved gray 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.

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

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