After prodding, D.C. mayoral candidates finally weigh in on Relisha Rudd report


Eight-year-old Relisha Rudd was last seen with Kahlil Malik Tatum, an employee at a D.C. homeless shelter. Tatum’s body was found a month later, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. (FBI)

The people now campaigning for D.C. mayor haven’t had much to say this week about one of the biggest questions this year facing District leaders.

Was the city at all culpable in the disappearance and presumed murder of Relisha Rudd, an 8-year-old homeless girl?

That question was at the heart of a review ordered six months ago by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). How could a young girl be taken by an employee at a city-run shelter, and how did it take two weeks before anyone in authority noticed? It seemed especially important since social workers had already raised alarms about Relisha’s circumstances and the girl had been missing from school at least 10 times — the trigger point at which child protective services should have been notified.

On Tuesday, Gray’s administration came back with its answer: “No justifiable government actions would have prevented Relisha’s tragic disappearance,” his staff concluded.

That was the assessment even as Gray’s team found that poor communication among District agencies led to tragic mistakes. Professionals, for example, who had suspected abuse or neglect failed to follow a city law that mandates reporting of those concerns to authorities because they assumed others had already done so.

The conclusion that the District had done all it could was blasted by the council member with oversight of the city’s homeless shelter, as well as by child welfare advocates. Release of the long-awaited report led local television newscasts and was front-page news in this publication.

But what did the mayoral candidates think? What would they have done if handed the same report?

No answer was forthcoming. There were no statements, no tweets. So The Washington Post on Tuesday contacted the council offices of D.C. Council members Muriel E. Bowser (D-Ward 4) and David A Catania (I-At large), and the campaign of Carol Schwartz (I). None responded to requests for comment for several hours after the report was released. Only Catania’s chief of staff called to say staff there was still reviewing the 12-page report.

On Wednesday, after a second round of inquiries to candidates’ council offices and campaigns, Bowser aides asked for a deadline to respond, did not meet it and then took several more hours to provide a statement. Catania’s office did not respond for five hours, until the candidate himself called. And Schwartz said she would — and did — e-mail a statement within an hour.

To compare the responses fairly, The Post asked each candidate to answer the same question:

If you were mayor and received the report published yesterday on Relisha Rudd, would you have been satisfied with the conclusion that the city did all that it could have done? If so, or if not, what would you do next as mayor?

Their responses, in order received after the report was released:

Carol Schwartz: (24 hours later)

“Although I continue to pray for a better end to the disappearance of Relisha Rudd, I would have ordered a review as this administration has done and then would take its findings and recommendations and implement them in order to prevent such tragic circumstances from recurring. Additionally, I would ensure that we have stronger background checks for anyone involved with such a vulnerable population and would re-think contracting out such vital services for that population. I also would do as Mayor Gray has done and refer this matter for further review to the more independent Inspector General.”

David A. Catania: (26 hours later)

“I don’t believe we did everything we could. I believe we had a number of good policies and procedures in place that were not faithfully executed. The combination of those failures — I don’t want to go as far as to say ‘contributed’ — but, we could have done a better job ... At the very least, we should be looking at how we strengthen our compliance with existing protocols and interagency cooperation so that this kind of tragedy doesn’t happen again, or at least, it dramatically lessens the potential for this to happen again ... schools, for example, are supposed to be looking at root causes for absences after 5 missed days, not 10 ... It’s not fair to say government can prevent all tragedies, but we can always do better.”

Muriel E. Bowser: (27 hours later)

“What happened to Relisha is an unspeakable tragedy; one that should have been prevented. DC residents rightfully expect a safety net to be there when we need it most. No time should be wasted implementing the recommendations contained in the report.”

You can read the District’s redacted report on the Relisha Rudd case here.

Here is The Post’s article on the report’s findings.

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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