Relisha Rudd’s difficult past comes into focus


Relisha Tenau Rudd (Courtesy of Homeless Children's Playtime Project)

Relisha Rudd’s absences piled up at Daniel A. Payne Elementary School, topping 30 days this year before someone notified the D.C. Child and Family Service Agency on March 13.

But it took an additional six days before the city agency took action. By then, Relisha, 8, had gone missing.

Police believe Kahlil Malik Tatum, 51, a janitor at the homeless shelter at the old D.C. General Hospital, where Relisha lived, killed his wife and now has the girl. They are looking for them up and down the East Coast.

With the search now into its eighth day with no breaks, Relisha’s difficult past is coming into focus. Guardians, social workers and employees at the subsidized shelter had extensive contact with Relisha but missed or ignored repeated opportunities to intervene weeks or even years ago, records show. And her mother, who allowed Relisha to be with Tatum, told school officials her daughter was missing school because she was sick, an explanation that authorities say delayed their ability to respond.

[ Timeline: The disappearance of Relisha Rudd ]


Kahlil Malik Tatum (Courtesy of Prince George's Police Department)

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said Wednesday that agencies acted as best they could given the information they had. “To my knowledge, there wasn’t sufficient evidence to have an allegation of abuse or neglect,” Gray said. “I’m not going to get into a lot of details, but I certainly did read a chronology where [the school system] was told the child was sick. . . . It appears to me the agencies involved made responsible actions.”

City records show that D.C. agencies had contact with Relisha and her family beginning in 2007, when the girl was 1 or 2. The records show instances of physical abuse, filthy living conditions and a lack of food. But social workers did not remove Relisha and her siblings from the home, city records show.

More recently, officials at the shelter failed to notice Tatum offering children gifts and spending time alone with Relisha, both fireable offenses.

At the same time, officials at Relisha’s school struggled to figure out why she had missed nearly six weeks of class and were confused by excuses provided by her relatives, who said Relisha was safely in the care of a “Dr. Tatum.” Even after police got involved, Relisha’s 27-year-old mother, Shamika Young, assured reporters that Relisha was in a “safe place.”

City officials defended their actions Wednesday, saying that they flagged the case in accordance with the law requiring intervention after 10 unexcused absences, while also criticizing the mother for misleading them about why the girl wasn’t in school. They said that many of the 30 absences were logged in as “excused.”

On Wednesday afternoon, D.C. police returned to the shelter near RFK Stadium, a show of force designed to find new witnesses. About 30 uniformed officers looked through trash bins and inside and under cars parked on the lots. Some handed out FBI fliers with pictures of Relisha and Tatum, even as residents grew frustrated by a search now into its second week. The reward for information on the two was increased and the FBI filed “unlawful flight to avoid prosecution charges” against Tatum in connection with the murder of his wife.

“No one is telling us anything,” said Sheron Woods, 53, who has lived at the shelter for 15 months and was carrying a sign with the missing girl’s picture. “The kids here are asking when is Relisha coming home.”

Forbidden interactions

For the past 18 months, Relisha Rudd lived with her mother and three younger brothers, ages 4, 5 and 7, in the sprawling 278-family shelter on Massachusetts Avenue in Southeast Washington. Like other parents, Young befriended the janitor, Tatum, who dressed in stylish Polo shirts, drove an immaculate SUV and took a liking to children, offering many of them gifts, according to relatives.

Young trusted him, as did some other family members, sometimes referring to him as “godfather.” Relisha played with a 9-year old girl they thought was Tatum’s granddaughter, and he took her shopping and swimming, often returning with a new toy. “He always brought her back when he was supposed to,” said Relisha’s aunt, Ashley Young.

The Washington Post tried numerous times to interview Young but was unsuccessful.

But Tatum’s relationship with Relisha and perhaps other children violated several shelter rules and could have gotten him fired. Employees are not allowed to give gifts, spend time with children or take them home. “Employees who violate the no fraternization policy are terminated immediately,” according to an e-mailed response to questions provided by the D.C. Department of Human Services.

The statement also says that shelter officials did not know of Tatum spending time with Relisha, and that he worked in a separate building from where they lived. Officials knew he had a felony conviction in Virginia for larceny, but they noted that it was 20 years ago and did not preclude him from his job.

That Tatum was so well known by residents was apparently missed by supervisors until the investigation began March 19. Court records show that a social worker called Tatum that day about Relisha and he told her to meet him at the shelter. But when she arrived, he was gone, and she quickly learned there was no Dr. Tatum. When his boss summoned Tatum, they learned he had abruptly left work prior to his shift ending, according to records.

D.C. police were called, and a sergeant met with Young, according to a confidential record. She told the sergeant her daughter had accompanied Tatum and his family on a trip to Atlanta that past week for a “medical seminar” that took place March 8. She did not know when they would be back, according to the records.

Police tried to call Tatum at 9:39 p.m., but the call went “directly to voice mail,” according to a police affidavit filed Wednesday, and the phone was never turned back on.

History of problems at home

The D.C. Child and Family Service Agency has been involved with the Young family for years, although records do not show children being removed from various residences. Court documents required for such action, although private, have never been filed, according to records.

Records read to The Washington Post show that social workers sustained three complaints against the Young household — in 2007, 2010 and 2013 — although the addresses were not provided. Also, agents with child and family services could have made dozens of other visits that didn’t rise to the level of verified complaints.

In July 2007, workers with the Child and Family Service Agency reported finding inadequate food and supervision for Relisha and her newborn brother and that Relisha had an injury that could have been caused by abuse. The records do not indicate that police were called or any of the children were removed.

In April 2010, the agency sustained a complaint that one of Young’s boys was neglected when doctor’s appointments were missed after a surgery, and that children were “living in environmentally unsafe conditions.” Records show that the home was full of cigarette butts and covered with trash, and that small children were allowed to bathe by themselves, “without supervision.”

A report from November 2013, when the family lived at the homeless shelter at D.C. General, shows that a social worker noted that one of Young’s boys had been physically abused by being thrown to the ground, cutting open his lip, and slapped in the face. Records say the mother was “verbally abusive on a regular basis and would leave [the children] alone often.”

Mindy Good, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Child and Family Service Agency, declined to comment. She wrote in an e-mail that the “focus needs to stay on finding Relisha.” She added: “A vulnerable child is missing . . . and law enforcement is conducting a difficult and sensitive investigation and search.”

Mounting absences

Payne Elementary sits on the southeast edge of Capitol Hill at the crossroads of two Washingtons: in a gentrifying neighborhood of renovated rowhouses, just blocks from the former hospital campus that now serves as the city’s family homeless shelter.

Relisha was one of about 260 Payne students this year, 55 of whom are also homeless.

Relisha missed class frequently, but school officials, assured by Relisha’s family that the girl was ill, considered most of her absences excused. Such absences do not trigger the school system’s usual anti-truancy efforts, and school officials would not have been aware of the family’s dealings with child welfare workers because of confidentiality rules.

But Feb. 25 — the day before Relisha’s relatives put her in Tatum’s care — she reached her fifth unexcused absence, according to a person familiar with the investigation.

Payne officials scheduled a parent conference, which is required by law for truant students. At that March 5 meeting, school officials talked with Relisha’s mother about plans to connect her with additional support services to ensure better attendance, according to the source. Relisha was last seen at the school March 7, when she told a teacher she was sick and staying with her grandmother.

School officials, who thought Relisha was in the care of a “Dr. Tatum,” reached out to Tatum on March 10 to tell him that he would have to provide documentation to demonstrate the medical reasons for Relisha’s continued absence, according to a person familiar with the case.

After 10 unexcused absences, the school was required by law to call the city’s child welfare agency, a rule meant to encourage better attendance and to ensure, when truancy is due to neglect or abuse, that social workers intervene. Relisha reached that threshold March 13.

That day, a school social worker referred Relisha to the child welfare agency, noting that her grandmother insisted she was ill and in the care of Tatum.

CFSA did not immediately treat Relisha’s situation as a high-priority case — partly because her younger brothers had continued to show up for class at Payne, according to a person familiar with the case.

Not until March 19 — six days after Payne raised a flag about Relisha — did a social worker reach out to Tatum and visit the homeless shelter at D.C. General, setting off a string of events that turned a run-of-the-mill child-welfare check into a high-profile police investigation, according to a police search warrant.

Beatriz “BB” Otero, the deputy mayor for Health and Human Services, said case workers and school officials attempted multiple meetings with Relisha’s family at the shelter and at Payne Elementary. She noted that Relisha was seen in class March 5 and at the school March 7, further muting concerns.

“This is an unusual case,” Otero said Wednesday. “The parent didn’t file the missing child report. This was the various workers within DHS and the school system that became concerned. It was their call that alerted us.”

Otero emphasized that Tatum posed as a doctor to excuse Relisha from school absences.

Tatum, she said, told the school that Relisha was sick, and the absence was marked excused, meaning it would not trigger potential reporting to the Child and Family Services Agency. Only after school staff visited the D.C. General shelter to gather more information did they discover that the excuse from the “doctor” was bogus, Otero said.

Otero said she was not aware of safeguards to ensure school excuses come from bona fide doctors. “If a parent says, here’s the name of a doctor, they don’t verify the number of the doctor,” she said. “They just call the doctor.”

Tara Bahrampour, Mike DeBonis, Keith L. Alexander and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
Lynh Bui is a Prince George's County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.
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