South Dakota parents share missing daughter's story

Serenity Dennard. Special to Forum News Service
Serenity Dennard. Special to Forum News Service

STURGIS, S.D. - A stuffed pink unicorn with lilac hoofs sits on Serenity Dennard's neatly made bed with its arms open wide, waiting for the missing girl to return home.

Hanging above the unicorn, which was donated by school children after Serenity went missing, is a red and silver sign that reads "Serenity" in cursive letters. It was handmade by Serenity's great-grandfather, or "pop" as she calls him.

Across from her bed, covered in a comforter decorated with a character from the Disney "Descendants" movie, sits a white shelf with a dollhouse, toy car and colorful toy ponies.

Serenity's dresser is mostly empty since she packed her clothes when she moved last summer to the Black Hills Children's Home, a residential youth treatment center.

"It sucks to look in there" and is difficult to walk by each day, said Chad Dennard as he stood last week inside his daughter's room at the family's home in Sturgis.

Serenity's room is a constant reminder for Chad, 37, and his wife Kasandra, 25, that Serenity has been missing for nearly two months after running away Feb. 3 from the Children's Home near Rockerville.

While the couple hasn't seen the 9-year-old in a long time, they can still lovingly recall her personality.

"Serenity is a very..., she's Serenity," Chad said with a laugh.

"I know, she's her own person," Kasandra chimed in as the couple sat at their kitchen table, surrounded by artwork made by their four children.

Serenity "absolutely loves animals and babies," including her family's dog, cat and 5-month-old baby girl, Chad said.

She's "very intelligent" and "thinks deeper into stuff than anyone I know," Kasandra said.

Their daughter enjoys hands-on activities such as playing catch with her older brother, wearing a special apron while cooking with her grandma, practicing gymnastics and making bracelets.

"She likes to be the center of attention, she likes all eyes on her," which makes it hard for her to make friends at school, Kasandra said. "She's charming. She can win your heart but at the same time she's going to tear it apart at some time, too."

"She's a sweet girl, she's very smart, she just struggles," Kasandra said.

Those struggles involve challenging emotions and behaviors that stem from several diagnoses, including reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD), she said.

RAD occurs when an infant or young child doesn't establish healthy attachments with their parents or their basic needs aren't being met, according to the Mayo Clinic, while DDMD results in children having "extreme irritability, anger and frequent, intense temper outbursts," according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Serenity's symptoms include refusing to do school work, ripping things up and breaking toys, threatening self-harm and yelling at people, Kasandra said. "She has no fear of introducing herself, asking others to play or talking to others," but later becomes controlling toward people.

Another one of her symptoms is running away, whether it's from her parents, grandmother, or school. She runs away because she doesn't know how to process her emotions, or because she begins to feel too comfortable in a place, Chad and Kasandra said.

Serenity has planned escapes by packing a suitcase and leaving in the middle of the night (her house has an alarm to help prevent that), convincing another child to run with her after one of two day-care supervisors temporarily left the room, and having a lunch lady pack her lunch in a bag so she could run away from school, the couple said.

Kasandra and Chad Dennard hold a photo of their 9-year-old daughter, Serenity, who has been missing for nearly two months. Ryan Hermens / Rapid City Journal
Kasandra and Chad Dennard hold a photo of their 9-year-old daughter, Serenity, who has been missing for nearly two months. Ryan Hermens / Rapid City Journal

Chad said he's "100 percent" positive that Serenity similarly planned an escape from the Children's Home by having another child first run away. "That's just her M.O." he said. "She's going to wait until everything is calmed down," said Chad. "It's unexpected," Kasandra added.

Serenity and three other children were playing inside the gym at the Children's Home when one of the other children ran away, Bill Colson, executive director of the Children's Home Society, has said. As a staffer ran after that child, Serenity then took off. Because the remaining staffer was still supervising two other children, that person stayed put and called for help rather than follow Serenity.

Serenity's parents said their daughter would hide from staff inside the Children's Home and threaten to run away. She once ran away while they were playing outside but staff was able to catch her. She may have ran Feb. 3 because she started to feel too comfortable at the home, was no longer the new girl and was ready for something new, the couple said.

Kasandra said she thinks her daughter's struggles stem from the inconsistency of being raised by many different people. She said Serenity's birth parents loved her but they were both sent to prison.

Once Serenity was removed from her family, "she was tossed through foster homes," about 12-13 homes in two years, Kasandra said. "She's used to wearing somebody out, and they send her to somebody else."

"She didn't get the chance to learn trust and dependency from her parents or caregivers," and it makes her feel like she can't trust people and is unloved," Kasandra explained.

Chad and his ex-wife adopted Serenity in October 2014, and the couple broke up in early 2015. Chad and Kasandra began raising her in May 2015.

"She is the strongest person I know in the world," Kasandra said. "She overcomes so much."

The couple took Serenity to outpatient therapy for at least two-and-a-half years before deciding in July 2018 to enroll her at the Children's Home, which provides schooling and intensive inpatient therapy.

This photograph of Serenity Dennard was taken Feb. 2, the day before she went missing. Special to Forum News Service via Rapid City Journal
This photograph of Serenity Dennard was taken Feb. 2, the day before she went missing. Special to Forum News Service via Rapid City Journal

Searching for Serenity

Since their daughter ran away nearly two months ago, Chad and Kasandra have tried to remain hopeful by focusing on efforts to find and raise awareness about their missing 9-year-old.

"Our brains don't ever stop" thinking about Serenity, Kasandra said. "We want her found."

"Don't steer away from the fact that she's missing," the 25-year-old said of her message to the public.

The couple has searched for Serenity near the Black Hills Children's Home, which she ran away from Feb. 3, and they speak to someone at the Pennington County Sheriff's Office each day to learn if there's anything new to learn about the search and investigation.

"Your heart jumps" each time the sheriff's office calls because while it's probably just an update, it could also be bad news, Chad said.

But while the couple tries to stay positive, they also have to manage their own emotions and those of their three other children, go to work and run errands, and deal with strangers judging, analyzing and creating theories about their family and what happened to Serenity.

The couple says they've received fake threats from people telling them that they have Serenity and need to send ransom money if they want her back. A stranger wrote on Facebook that because Kasandra used an exclamation mark in a post about Serenity, she must not really be upset. Someone else discovered Chad's military background and wrote that he should have a psychological evaluation. Strangers found photos of their children standing together and wrote that Chad must be forcing them to stand at attention.

"They just sit behind the keyboard and say what they want," Kasandra said.

"They need to feed their CSI needs," Chad said of the "keyboard investigators."

People were "bashing" his family so the couple decided to delete their Facebook accounts, Chad, 37, said. "We could just not handle it anymore."

State Sen. Lynne DiSanto organizing a search for Serenity is helpful, but the videos she made with Serenity's birth mother, biological relatives and adoptive mother aren't helpful, Kasandra said.

"All it's doing is the public is tearing these people apart, limb for limb, and building their own assumptions. It completely steers away from the fact that Serenity is missing and has not been found," she said.

"Our family dynamics don't matter in the search," Chad added.

While the family has been discouraged by some online comments, they've also found support through strangers and from friends and family.

National Guard members brought the family meals during the first week Serenity went missing. Neighbors ran errands for the family, plowed their driveway, and donated cash and necessities such as toilet paper. One of the couple's close friends searches for Serenity at least once a week, and hundreds of people prayed for their daughter after someone created a Facebook prayer event.

Students at the Sapa Un Catholic school in St. Francis sent the family a care package, which included a stuffed unicorn that sits on Serenity's bed. One of Serenity's relatives started a petition asking the federal government to create a Serenity Alert, which would text people about missing children. The Amber Alert is only for children suspected of being abducted.

"If it helps one kid, it's worth it," Kasandra said.

Kasandra and Chad said they believe Children's Home staff were doing what they were supposed to by following the facility's protocol but wish the protocol was different.

"Do I wish that they would have called 911 immediately? Do I wish they would have called me immediately? Yes. Because I feel like it would have been a better head start. That's a lot of critical time," said Kasandra, adding that she hopes the facility will change how they handle future incidents. "But right now the focus is finding her, we'll deal with our questions about that later."

The Pennington County Sheriff's Office will resume ground searching Wednesday.

"This will be a large scale search involving many partner agencies. At this time, we have a significant search party and are not requesting additional volunteers," the sheriff's office said in a Facebook post.