After Relisha Rudd’s disappearance, who should care for her three younger brothers?

Irving Rudd arrived at the District courthouse an hour early Wednesday. In a mostly empty hallway, the father of missing 8-year-old Relisha Rudd sat quietly, checking his phone, waiting for proceedings to start that will help determine the future of her three brothers, including his son.

Before Relisha disappeared, Rudd had sought sole custody of her and her brother at least twice, aiming to take them from a mother who has come under repeated scrutiny by the city because of alleged abuse and neglect. Rudd’s own troubled past as a parent — one that landed him in prison for involuntary manslaughter two decades ago — hadn’t dissuaded him from paying the $80 paperwork fee each time and noting that “joint custody was not in the best interest of the children.”

Now Relisha is gone, taken by a custodian at the D.C. homeless shelter where she lived with her mother, and Rudd has no idea whether he’ll see her again. What he does know is that his son, a 7-year-old who bears his name, is living with strangers.

In the more than two months since Relisha’s disappearance, the focus has been on her. Her face has appeared on Amber Alerts and television broadcasts. Her name has been uttered in church prayers and invoked during the debate about the future of the shelter. But Relisha was not an only child. Now the fate of her three younger brothers, ages 7, 5 and 4, who have been in foster care since March, rests with a judge who must determine whether they can be safely returned to their parents.

A close look at the family’s history and an examination of confidential records filed with the court and obtained by The Washington Post reveal just how difficult that decision could be when a scheduled trial begins next month before D.C. Superior Court Magistrate Judge Janet Albert.

Relisha Rudd's mother, Shamika Young, is heard on the Internet-based "Finding Relisha Rudd Show" in this April 16 episode. Several of the girl’s relatives, some who have not spoken publicly, have called into the show in recent weeks. (The Finding Relisha Rudd Show)

Fighting for the children on one side is a homeless 27-year-old mother who allegedly gave police conflicting information about her missing daughter, prompting an investigation by a grand jury of possible obstruction of justice. On the other side is a 43-year-old father who was found guilty in the death of his toddler daughter, a girl who would have been Relisha’s much older half-sister. The current question before the court may be what should happen to three boys, but it will probably involve another question: What happened to two girls?

Family court matters are usually private, but a reporter’s request to sit in on a hearing this week was granted on the condition that no information about the boys learned during the proceedings be released.

In all, six attorneys filled the courtroom, including two whose clients didn’t show up. Missing were the children’s mother, Shamika Young, and her boyfriend, Antonio Wheeler, the father of Relisha’s two youngest brothers. Meanwhile, Rudd sat at the end of a long table, aware of the stakes.

A toddler’s death

In the fall of 1992, a 17-month-old girl named Tarricka arrived at Children’s Hospital with a split lip, a fractured skull and bruises all over her body. She would be the 12th child to die in the District that year of suspected abuse and neglect.

In the aftermath, police charged her father, Irving Rudd, with first-degree murder.

Two witnesses told authorities that Rudd had grabbed Tarricka by the neck, hurled her into an end table and then pounded on her chest, according to a Post story that quoted the charging documents. One witness said the girl lost consciousness after Rudd tossed her onto a couch and she hit her head on its wooden back.

Rudd and his attorney, Madhavan Nair, declined to comment for this article. A jury ultimately convicted Rudd, then 23, and he was sentenced to up to 15 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter.

According to records filed with the court, Rudd confessed to police: “Although I’ve killed her, it’s not intentional, and I realize that I have done something wrong.” He said that when the toddler started whining, he “picked her up by the neck and then let her neck go,” and that when she didn’t stop, he took her into a bathroom and “put her under the faucet, and her mouth was open from whining and the water just went in.”

When an officer asked whether Rudd had assaulted the child before, according to the confession, he replied, “Not that one. We both was involved with spanking the other twin too hard and broke her leg.”

After Tarricka was taken to the hospital, authorities went to the family’s home, where they found the girl’s twin sister suffering from similar injuries and weighing only 10 pounds.

That girl, now grown, answered her cellphone recently and started to talk about her half-sister Relisha, saying how hard the disappearance has been on the family. But before she could say much, a man who identified himself as Rudd took the phone and said the family did not want to speak to the media.

Rudd’s cousin, Bernard Rudd, said that he doesn’t believe Rudd killed his daughter and that he may have falsely confessed, not understanding his rights. Records filed with the court show that Irving Rudd’s attorney filed an unsuccessful motion to exclude the confession: “The defendant asserts that he is in some way mentally deficient and unable to ‘intelligently’ waive his rights.” Rudd’s attorney also appealed the conviction, asking for a mistrial.

Since Rudd was released from prison in 2002, his criminal record shows no other charges against him. On his Facebook page, he lists a former employer as Catholic Charities, where relatives say he was working as a custodian when he met Young.

Neither Rudd nor Young would discuss their relationship or their custody dispute. Young said in a recent interview with an online radio show that Rudd did not take care of his children. “He walked out of Relisha’s life at the age of one,” she said, “and he walked out of Irving’s life at the age of six months.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, Rudd’s attorney told the judge that his client is not getting his full hour of visitation because Young often arrives late or spends more than her allotted time with the children. The judge suggested that they have visitation on different days.

Even before the courts got involved, relatives say, the tension between Rudd and Young left him seeing his children sporadically and never when she was around.

Young’s sister, Ashley Young, said Rudd would often pick up the children from her home. “They feel good when their daddy sits down to color with them or watch TV or play with them,” she said. “Whatever they think is fun, daddy would do.”

Belinda Wheeler, who is Antonio Wheeler’s mother and considers herself a grandmother to all three boys, said Rudd and his wife, Tonya, gave Relisha and Irving Jr. a nice Christmas: “Relisha had a scooter and princess stuff and little doll babies. [Irving] had a whole lot of Ninja Turtles stuff.”

In February 2012 and again in September 2012, Rudd filed for legal custody of the children, according to records filed with the court. Both times, records show, the cases were dismissed after he and Young did not show up for a court date.

Relisha goes missing

The same year Rudd filed for custody, Young and her children moved into the homeless shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital in Southeast. It was there, in a building nestled between a morgue and a methadone clinic, that Relisha started spending time with Kahlil Tatum, the 51-year-old custodian who was last seen with the second-grader.

Police suspect Tatum killed his wife, Andrea, in a hotel room before committing suicide in a Northeast Washington park. The search for Relisha has become “a recovery mission,” police said.

Young and her attorney, Jack Gilmore, declined to comment for this article. But records filed with the court detail a conversation she had with a social worker March 19, after her daughter had missed more than a month of school. Young described Tatum as a “godfather” to Relisha and said she did not want to file a missing person report. She told the social worker, records show, that she did not understand why the agency was “making such a big deal” about it.

That day, the boys were removed from Young’s care and placed in foster care, according to records filed with the court. Social workers recommended that all visitation be supervised and that during visits there be no drug or alcohol use, no physical discipline and no discussion of the case. Young and Wheeler were ordered to undergo substance abuse testing and receive mental health treatment, psychiatric and psychological therapy, and parenting training.

Two days later, on March 21, records show, a negligence complaint against Young was filed with the court.

It marked the fourth time she had faced an investigation by the District’s Child and Family Services Agency, according to the records. After two of those incidents, one in July 2007 and another in November 2013, police were called after social workers reported that the children had been injured. But officers were unable to determine how those injuries had occurred, said law enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk publicly about the case. In the November incident, a social worker noted that one of Relisha’s brothers had been thrown to the ground and smacked in the face and that the children said their mother was verbally and physically abusive and left them home alone “often.”

Young has denied the accusations, asserting that she is a good mother. After each incident, the children were allowed to remain with her.

Belinda Wheeler said that her son and Young, who grew up in foster care, are looking into parenting classes and ways to meet the other criteria outlined by social workers in hopes of reuniting with their children. She said the boys shouldn’t remain in foster care just because their parents made mistakes.

“Everybody can learn and everybody can change,” Wheeler said. “Everybody deserves a second chance.”

Who gets the children?

Although the city’s child welfare agency works to keep families intact whenever possible, it will be up to a judge to decide whether that is in the best interest of Relisha’s brothers.

The trial is scheduled to start June 17 and is expected to last about four days. Attorneys and advocates for children say that at the end of it, the judge must decide whether the allegations against Young have merit, and, if so, make a determination: Should the boys be returned to their mother with certain conditions imposed and services provided, go to another family member or stay with a foster family while authorities work toward adoption?

Although a criminal history does not automatically rule a parent or relative out as a caretaker, it can prompt hard scrutiny, especially if a conviction speaks directly to a person’s parenting ability, attorneys and advocates said. Records filed with the court show that Rudd has been ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation as well as drug and alcohol testing and that his attorney has filed a motion opposing those requests.

Removing children from troubled families may sometimes seem like the least risky option, said attorney Rahkel Bouchet, who oversees Howard Law School’s child welfare clinic, which represents parents in abuse and neglect cases. But taking children away from their parents is traumatic, she said. “As imperfect as these people are,” Bouchet said, “these are the parents they know and love.”

The number of city children in foster care has plunged in the past decade, the results of an intentional effort. At the same time, the District’s child welfare agency is better equipped to address the trauma faced by children who are removed from their families, said Mindy Good, a CFSA spokeswoman. “It’s important,” she said, “because no matter how much the foster care population declines, sadly some kids will always need to leave home to be safe.”

If the court ultimately decides to remove Relisha’s brothers, keeping them together will be a priority, advocates say, especially after already losing their sister.

Relisha, whose nickname is “Li’l Mama,” was the big sister who watched over the boys, relatives said. She would run baths for them and tell them not to eat too much candy when they gobbled down Lemonheads, gummy worms and suckers.

On a recent visit with the boys, Belinda Wheeler said she forgot to take off a Relisha button. Her son’s shirt also had the 8-year-old’s picture on it. Wheeler said Irving Jr. got excited upon seeing his sister’s face, but the younger boys did not ask about Relisha — and for that she is grateful. “I wouldn’t know what to tell them,” she said.

The family is allowed to visit the boys once a week, and sometimes they walk to a nearby park, family members said. There, the brothers glide through the air on the swings, screaming, “I love you!” to relatives. But like the ride itself, the highs are soon followed by lows. At the end of the visits, Wheeler said, the boys often cry and wonder why they can’t leave with the people who raised them.

Wheeler said her son tries to comfort them, promising: “I’m coming to get you all soon. You all will come home soon.”

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

Lynh Bui is a Prince George's County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.
Keith Alexander covers crime, specifically D.C. Superior Court cases for The Washington Post. He has covered dozens of crime stories from Banita Jacks, the Washington woman charged with killing her four daughters, to the murder trial of intern Chandra Levy.
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