A famous mountaineer once lamented about the Black Hill forest when he said, “And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”
Personally I have never visited the Black Hills, or its four famous faces carved into its rocks, but just ogling over some scenic pictures helps me grasp the words or the old mountaineer man.
The Black Hill mountains, while aren’t exactly black, are shadowed by the millions of trees covering its expansive landscapes. The peacefulness of the mountain could help you get lost in your thoughts, but if you’re not careful, get lost in your location.
The Escape Plan
On February 3, 2019, a 9-year-old Serenity Dennard escaped the Black Hills Children’s Home just before 11 a.m.
In order for her escape to be successful, she enlisted the help of another child. Her job would be to distract the two staff members so she could make her ‘clean getaway’.
The task seemed near impossible, 2 staff members watched closely over the 6 children, some like Dennard under the “arms-length only” protocols.
The accomplice bolted for the gym door, attracting an immediate chase from one of the staff members. Finally, it was Serenity’s chance to escape.
Using the distraction to her advantage, the 9-year-old Dennard escaped through the outside door where she heads north into the forest.
Dressed in a long sleeve shirt, jeans, and snow boots, Serenity must have felt that she would easily stay warm. What she didn’t know is that a heavy storm would arrive shortly, inhibiting search efforts, and most-likely causing her to freeze to death.
A grandmother dropping off her granddaughter at the northern entrance spots the child as she disappears into the forest.
An Extensive Search
South Dakotans have never seen an investigation and search as exhaustive as the one conducted for Serenity Dennard. Over several weeks 66 agencies, including law enforcement, and the FBI joined in with hundreds of concerned citizens.
The 1,200 searches even included experienced elk hunters and trackers to help cover the 4,500 miles of woodlands.
While helicopters hovered, and search dogs sniffed, officers were knocking on doors and conducting nearly 600 interviews. Unfortunately the search for Serenity Dennard ended in January 2021, nearly one year later.
The sheriff’s office’s released statement said, “Absent new information, the search has been suspended.”
Why Did Serenity Run Away?
Experts’ claim from birth to eighteen months is one of the most important periods in a newborn baby’s life. Children need love, affection, and security that only a mother and father can give.
Serenity never experienced the support she needed to thrive. Born to “unstable birth parents” Serenity shuffled around to over a dozen foster homes. Eventually experts would diagnosed Dennard with reactive attachment disorder, meaning she could not establish healthy relationships with her caregivers, and also disruptive mood dysregulation disorder.
In fact, a primary reason Serenity was sent to the Black Hills Children’s Home was for her constant escape attempts. It was also noted she had a potential for self harm.
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Serenity’s adoptive father, Chad Dennard, said in an interview that Serenity loved to run away and even “seemed to enjoy watching people search for her.” If seeing the incoming search party look for her, she may have stayed just one step ahead of the searchers as they were tracking her.
What Really Happened to Serenity Dennard?
Humans don’t enjoy not knowing how stories end. We always need a resolution. Parents especially always need closure, even if they have to hear awful details concerning their child’s death.
With Serenity, there is no closure, only an exhaustive search that turned up no fresh evidence. The Seriff’s Office believes that Serenity walked off into the woods, got lost, and either froze to death or died of hypothermia.
There is no evidence of foul play, and it’s highly unlikely that a stranger abducted her.
The hard-truth is, the Black Hills, or any forest, is no place for a 9-year-old girl. Plus, temperatures dropped to below freezing when she walked away and snow blanketed the hills for several weeks.
A pediatrician consulting on the disappearance claims that given Serenity’s age, we can expect her to have walked up to 4 miles.
That’s a lot of ground to cover.
“Sometimes I just go in there and cry. I lay down, I hold her unicorn, and I cuddle up in the blankets. It just completely rips your heart out.” Darcie Gentry (Serenity’s adoptive mother)
Will Serenity Ever Be Found? Dead or Alive?
Depending on how far Serenity traveled and how many people still search for her, they could eventually find her. I would not believe she survived this long.
This case is heartbreaking, I know.
Law enforcement have done a fantastic job following up on each new lead, even traveling across state lines, and even across the Canadian border, at potential “sightings” of Serenity Dennard, but so far, she has not turned up.
I believe that this was a tragedy, but like the sheriff said, nothing warranting foul play.