D.C. General shelter residents say security rules are often flouted

The first time Yolanda Manning, a 22-year-old resident of the homeless shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital, saw Kahlil Tatum, a janitor there, he tried to give her 4-year-old daughter $2.

Manning was celebrating her daughter’s birthday in the cafeteria, and her maternal instincts bristled. “It was weird, because you don't know me from Adam or Eve,” she said. “I said, ‘No, she can’t take that.’ ”

But half a dozen mothers standing outside the shelter Thursday said that the facility’s rules, including one prohibiting social interaction between employees and residents, were regularly flouted — in particular by Tatum, who is being sought in connection with the disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd this month.

Several mothers said Tatum had offered money to their young daughters — though never to their sons — in plain view of staff members. “They would have noticed,” Manning said. “It was right out there in the open.”

The residents had many complaints, especially about security. They said the 9:30 p.m. curfew is regularly ignored, staffing is often insufficient, broken surveillance cameras are not fixed, people smoke marijuana out front with impunity, and visitors and residents are not always asked to sign in or show identification. The mothers said that when they complained about these issues, staff members either brushed them off or threatened to kick them out of the shelter.

An e-mailed response from officials at the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, the nonprofit agency contracted by the city to run the shelter, said shelter management was unaware of any contact between Tatum and Relisha or her family.

TCP, as the agency is known, declined several requests seeking comment about the case and referred questions to the city’s Department of Human Services, which provided an e-mail containing responses it said were from TCP officials.

“Shelter staffs are prohibited from having contact with families outside of the responsibilities of their position,” the e-mail said. It also noted that Tatum worked in a separate building.

Mothers interviewed at the shelter said they had not complained about Tatum because they didn’t consider him a serious threat. Their complaints reflected a litany of problems that have dogged the troubled and chronically overcrowded family shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital complex in Southeast Washington, which housed 351 adults and 513 children, according to a city report in October.

In 2010, the nonprofit agency contracted to run the shelter, Families Forward, was fired after allegations that several of its male employees had solicited and had sex with female residents.

But even after the city began contracting with TCP to run the shelter — the fiscal 2014 budget for operations is $7.4 million — the problems continued.

A 2012 audit of the shelter by the city’s Office of the Inspector General found incomplete personnel records and noted resident complaints about shelter conditions and employee conduct.

According to the audit, some D.C. General employees with direct contact with families and children had not received criminal background checks, drug and alcohol testing, or tuberculosis screening as required by contract and D.C. law.

The auditors were unable to confirm that all D.C. General employees had received required screenings, the audit said: “D.C. General personnel records did not contain this information and, despite repeated requests, TCP did not furnish this information to the OIG. A TCP employee also noted that DHS’s contract with TCP ‘does not require employees to have repeated criminal background checks done.’ ” (The audit noted, however, that this went against TCP’s internal policies.)

Of 65 personnel files reviewed, 47 lacked reference checks, 46 lacked job descriptions and 65 lacked training records, the audit said.

According to DHS policy, providers have seven days to correct safety-related deficiencies and 30 days to correct non-safety-related deficiencies. Dora Taylor, a DHS spokeswoman, said Thursday that the previous contractor had not completed some of the checks, that TCP initiated a review and that all files now have the required documentation. Taylor also said that neither DHS nor TCP had received a complaint of employees having sexual relationships with residents since TCP took over operations. Nor had they received any official complaints regarding security, she said.

As for residents’ concerns, Taylor said that while curfew is sometimes broken, staff track late arrivals, check identification and ensure that cameras are working.

In the case of Tatum, TCP staff appear to have ignored the agency’s rules. According to a TCP fraternization policy memo from August, employees are prohibited from starting personal relationships with residents while they live there and for two years after they leave the shelter.

That prohibition includes “communicating with the client when the employee is off duty; exchanging gifts; communicating with the client on clearly non-job-related issues while on duty; spending an inappropriately excessive amount of time with the client; developing a ‘special friendship’; and taking steps to be alone or isolated with the client” — all rules that Tatum allegedly violated.

The e-mail provided by DHS said there had been two terminations because of violations, neither of which involved children. It added that a background check had revealed that Tatum had a 20-year-old felony conviction. The agency’s policy prohibits hiring for certain offenses involving children and having pending charges and other felonies within the past 10 years, it said, adding that the background check had been reviewed by DHS monitors.

Family homeless shelters are not subject to federal oversight, and they vary widely in terms of standards and quality.

“The pay in shelters is not particularly high, and there is often a commitment to using the positions” to hire people who have themselves lived in the shelters, said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “And people who’ve been homeless often have criminal records from status offenses.”

But Roman said she had never heard of an incident like Relisha’s case.

At the National Center for Children and Families, which serves 1,000 people a year in family shelters in the District and Bethesda, “You’re not receiving or giving personal gifts to the client, you’re not in their personal space, up close, you’re not dating clients, . . . you’re not having relationships other than professional,” said Ralph Belk, deputy executive director. “It’s highly unusual and totally unprofessional for a janitor to be engaging in that type of behavior. It’s absolutely outrageous.”

When there is a violation, which happens around once a year, the employee is either terminated, suspended or trained further, said Sheryl Brissett Chapman, the center’s executive director.

Chapman, a former associate director for the Children’s National Medical Center’s division of child protection, decried the conditions at D.C. General.

“This little girl got caught up in the chaos of adult needs,” she said. “You just have to be careful about who you hire to work with vulnerable populations, and you have to be clear that our organization would crush them if they dared to violate a vulnerable client. It’s not just about hoping that it won’t happen . . . . you’ve got to be vigilant .”

The mothers out front on Thursday wore buttons with Re­lisha’s picture on them. But they said the shelter staff has not let them post pictures or fliers about the girl on the premises.

“They don’t talk about it; there’s no TV in there,” said Ladawn Garris, a 39-year-old resident with two teenage daughters. “Somebody knows something. There’s too many people here to not know.”

Pamela Constable, Mary Pat Flaherty and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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