Gov. Noem working to ensure transparency in Serenity Dennard case
PENNINGTON COUNTY, S.D. — This week Gov. Noem provided reports from two government agencies that looked into how the Black Hills Children’s Home handled Serenity Dennard’s disappearance on Feb. 3, 2019.
One report is a survey from the Department of Health and Human Services and the other is a Corrective Action Plan from the Department of Social Services. The full reports are available below:
Both reports indicate that the Black Hills Children’s Home had an emergency procedure in place for runaway children, but failed to properly execute the plan on the day Dennard ran away.
On Wednesday, Gov. Noem voiced her commitment to ensuring that the issues that have arisen through the Dennard case are being handled transparently.
In a statement to NewsCenter1 Noem wrote:
“These facilities play a critical role to a very vulnerable population. The state has a role in assisting private facilities, including Black Hills Children’s Home and others like it in South Dakota, to prevent an incident like this from happening again.
The Corrective Action Plan shows Black Hills Children’s Home failed to execute their emergency plan on February 3, 2019. The Department of Social Services is pursuing steps regarding emergency plans that will be communicated to facilities across the state in the following days and weeks. My team is looking at our regulatory requirements closely, but state-imposed regulatory requirements are only effective if they are properly implemented by the facility.
This tragedy has grabbed the attention of South Dakota, and I want to do everything we can to make sure the state is being transparent in our work to resolve any and all issues we have come across.”
The DHS report includes interviews with the Home’s program director, Tim Fitzgerald, and other staff members.
According to Fitzgerald, staff had experienced children running away in the past and they were used to searching the Children’s Home campus and finding them.
“Complacency amongst the staff was an issue, kids had ran in the past, staff had found them,” said Fitzgerald in the report. “They thought this time would have been the same.”
Dennard ran away from the Children’s Home at around 11 a.m. on Feb. 3 while playing with a group of other children at the Home’s gym facility.
The reports indicate that staff waited too long to call 911 and that the initial search for Dennard was disorganized as nobody wanted to take responsibility for coordinating it.
At the time of the incident the program director, who would normally be responsible, was on authorized leave.
The DHS report also says that staff training and drills focused on fire, active shooter and facility lockdown emergencies, while runaway situations were not emphasized.
The Children’s Home says it’s working to address the reports and is actively ensuring that staff are trained and drills are performed.
According to Fitzgerald, there is now heightened awareness of every child’s location at the facility.
The Black Hills location of the Children’s Home was established in 1972 and has been operating for 47 years. Its mission is to provide children who have experienced trauma and neglect heal and find stable homes.
The facility does not lock its doors from the inside as it focuses on providing its residents with the sense that they are in a home.
According to Bill Colson, executive director of the Children’s Home Society, “Our philosophy really is that we want to have the essence of home here.”