Advocates for at-risk children said Friday that for years, conditions at the District’s main homeless shelter have been ripe for a tragedy, such as the recent disappearance of an 8-year-old resident who has been missing for nearly a month.
At a hearing before a D.C. Council committee, attorneys for the nearly 300 families living on the former D.C. General Hospital campus say that residents routinely describe flirtatious and other inappropriate behavior by employees of a contractor that operates the shelter. In one case, a child there went missing for a time last year and was found in Los Angeles. In another, two teens reported incidents at the shelter that alarmed a group that fights sex trafficking, an advocate said.
The hearing was held as police authorities continued to search for Relisha Rudd, who authorities say was taken by a shelter janitor and has not been seen since March 1. Police allege that the janitor, Kahlil Malik Tatum, abducted Relisha, who lived at the shelter with her mother and three brothers. Tatum has also been charged with killing his wife.
Throughout Friday, more than 100 police officers, firefighters and cadets methodically moved through the 700-acre Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in Northeast Washington until dusk, searching for clues to the girl’s disappearance. Law enforcement officials said the search will continue through the weekend.
On Thursday, Lanier said that although police remain hopeful that Relisha is alive, the search had become a “recovery mission” and that “we cannot ignore the possibility that he killed her.” On Friday, she said: “It is heartbreaking for all of us. It is heartbreaking for everyone.”
Meanwhile, at a hearing of the council’s Committee on Human Services, which has oversight of the shelter, Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) sought to steer the discussion away from the specifics of Relisha’s case to avoid disclosing facts relevant to the police investigation. But the hearing repeatedly turned to two pressing questions: Had the contractor that runs the shelter property vetted Tatum, who had a criminal record? And why didn’t supervisors notice Tatum giving money to young girls and spending time with them, as several residents have since alleged that he did openly?
Several people have told The Washington Post that Tatum frequently offered girls gifts — including $20 bills — and spent a lot of time with Relisha. Police said the girl’s mother, 27-year-old Shamika Young, allowed Tatum to take her daughter home on Feb. 26.
Sue Marshall, executive director of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (TCP), which receives $13 million annually to run the shelter, did not mention Tatum specifically at the hearing. Generally, she said, her organization goes beyond the requirements of D.C. law and checks for criminal convictions within the previous seven years for anyone who works with children. Anyone with a felony conviction in the previous 10 years is disqualified, she said. But the hearing left unanswered whether Tatum, hired for janitorial work, was subject to that background check.
“We are also looking at the background procedure, looking toward extending that to all employees regardless of position description whether or not there is an explicit relationship to children,” Marshall said.
Marshall asserted that TCP has a strict policy against employees and clients of the homeless shelter fraternizing and had received no such complaints of that behavior. But Marshall quickly recanted the latter part of that statement.
“One wonders how effective this policy is,” Graham said. “Is it your testimony that you have not received any complaints regarding flirtatious, inappropriate behavior between staff and residents?”
“That is absolutely my testimony,” Marshall responded, “and I am mindful that I am under oath.”
At that point, David Berns, Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s director of the Department of Human Services, jumped in to correct Marshall: “I want to make sure that — well, there have been instances in the past,” he said.
Marshall then acknowledged that since 2010, TCP has fired at least four employees for having inappropriate relationships with shelter residents. She declined to provide specifics.
“That’s a pretty extreme situation,” Graham said. “One a year.”
Approached by reporters after the hearing, Marshall declined to answer any questions.
During the hearing, Marshall and Berns also said that shelter employees are supposed to conduct nightly counts of families and report whether any adults or children are missing from their rooms at curfew.
After the hearing, Berns said he could not comment on when or if shelter employees reported Relisha missing during the evening checks. Jamila Larson, the executive director of the Homeless Children’s Playtime project, which has a program at the shelter, said it was her understanding that the more intensive head counts began only after Relisha went missing. She said that residents have told her that previously, staff members only knocked on doors and noted the family as present if there was any response.
Graham began the hearing with a moment of silence for Relisha, saying that, at best, she “remains in jeopardy.”
Graham likened D.C. General, which as of Sunday night housed 534 children, 349 adults and hundreds of full- and part-time employees, to a “small town” the city had created. “While this is preferable to a stairway or Union Station, this is obviously not the situation we want for these little children. . . . This small town has very special needs. We must ensure the security of all its residents,” he said.
Patricia Fugere, executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said that the city pledged to make changes before.
“Every few years, in the midst of a crisis, we examine the shelter system, acknowledge the problems and commit to doing better. I hope we mean it this time,” she said.
Peter Hermann and Lynh Bui contributed to this report.