Black Hills Children's home: Serenity 'caught us a bit off guard'

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ROCKERVILLE, S.D. (KOTA TV) -- The Black Hills Children's home failed to follow proper emergency procedure when 9-year-old Serenity Denard ran away from the home in February, according to two state agencies, and now Gov. Kristi Noem says authorities are shining a light on emergency plans at similar facilities in the state.

When Serenity ran off from the Children's Home campus near Rockerville on Super Bowl Sunday the staff waited an hour a 41 minutes before calling 911. The state Department of Social Services says the delay does not fit with the home's policy that emergency responders get called within a "reasonable time."

"The issue really is that, in day-today activity, runaways are not unusual," said Bill Colson the executive director of the Children's Home Society, the parent organization of the Black Hills Children's Home. "Kids typically don't do what Serenity did. So I'll be perfectly honest. It caught us a little off guard. It caught us a bit off guard."

The home has been given Corrective Action Plans from state Dept. of Health and the Department of Social Services specifying that a new policy be adopted that 911 be called immediately. Colson says that new policy is already in place.

"Runaways in agencies like our are not uncommon," he said. "What is uncommon is for a child to run a great distance away. Typically if they leave one room they'll run into another room and hide under a bed of hide under a desk or something like that.

"And so we responded like we would typically respond and that is, 'Let's search the buildings first.' As a result we delayed a bit in dialing 911. And in consultation with the sheriff's department and the police department there's no prescribed time. The word that the sheriff used with me was that, 'sooner is always better.' So as we worked on our improved policies and so on, the 911 call is the first thing we do."

Asked if he thought 911 should have been called more quickly in the Serenity situation, Colson said, "Certainly we're going to do that from here out. Should we? Maybe. To be honest with you, I'm not absolutely certain it would have made a real difference in locating Serenity."

But that's not to say he believes everything went perfectly.

"We want to grow from this experience," he said. "I know it might be difficult to hear that such a tragedy is required to help us get better but the reality is we're always looking to improve our services to people."

Noem said she wants to make sure the situation with Serenity does not repeat itself.

“These facilities play a critical role to a very vulnerable population," she said in a statement Wednesday. "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."