More than three months after 8-year-old Relisha Rudd disappeared, a judge decided that her three younger brothers could be reunited with their mother if she meets certain conditions. Until then, they will remain in the foster-care system, under the D.C. government’s custody.
At a hearing Wednesday, D.C. Superior Court Magistrate Judge Janet Albert said that if Shamika Young complies with conditions ordered by the court, she could regain custody of the boys, ages 7, 5 and 4, in a year. The same ruling was issued for Antonio Wheeler, the father of the two younger boys.
Albert’s decision followed the recommendation of Assistant Attorney General Aisha Braithwaite Flucker. Albert also agreed with Flucker that “no reasonable effort” should be made to reunite the oldest boy with his father, Irving Rudd, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of his toddler daughter in 1992.
Family court matters are usually private, but a reporter’s request to sit in on the hearing was granted on the condition that no information about the boys, including their names, be released.
At the beginning of the proceedings, authorities discussed the current state of the brothers, who have been in foster care since March 19, when they were removed from the District homeless shelter where they lived with Young and Wheeler.
All three have behavioral problems and are receiving therapy, authorities said. Their foster mother has become instrumental in establishing structure for them and plans to enroll them in a therapeutic camp over the summer, they said. Albert suggested that they might eventually want to attend one for grieving children.
Relisha, whose nickname is “Li’l Mama,” was the big sister who watched over the boys, relatives said. She would run baths for them when adults were busy and tell them not to eat too much candy.
Relisha had missed a month of school before authorities began questioning her whereabouts and discovered that she was last seen with Kahlil Tatum, a 51-year-old custodian at the shelter who showed an interest in her. Police suspect that 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,” meaning authorities do not believe she is alive.
Confidential court records obtained by The Washington Post show that when a social worker questioned Young on March 19 about her daughter, she described Tatum as a “godfather” to Relisha and said she did not want to file a missing person’s report. She told the social worker that she did not understand why the agency was “making such a big deal” about it.
Records show that a neglect complaint was filed on behalf of the children on March 21, marking the fourth time their parents had come under the scrutiny of the District’s Child and Family Services Agency.
In 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 and her attorney, Jack Gilmore, declined to comment after the hearing.
Irving Rudd, the biological father of Relisha and the oldest of the three boys, and his attorney, Madhavan Nair, also declined to comment. Court records show that Rudd was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of his 17-month-old daughter, who was taken to the hospital with a split lip, a fractured skull and bruises all over her body.
In a police confession, according to court records, Rudd said: “Although I’ve killed her, it’s not intentional, and I realize that I have done something wrong.”
Nair objected to the judge’s decision about Rudd, saying that he had paid his time for the conviction and had complied with everything the court had asked of him since his son was placed in foster care.
He wants to take care of his son, Nair said. “He’s not a danger to this child,” he said.
Flucker told Albert that it was not only the past conviction that had raised concerns but also a recent report from a social worker who said Rudd had told her that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was not taking medication. Rudd also had only sporadic contact with his son in past years, Flucker said.
When asked about Rudd’s role in his son’s life, Young said he saw him maybe once a year.
“He would call and say he would come get the kids and never show up,” she said. “He’d come and go as he pleased.”
A social worker said that in the supervised visits Rudd has with his son, the interactions are centered around playing video games, with limited conversation. The boy calls him “daddy” when he is around but refers to him by his first name when he is not there, she said.
Albert said based on all those factors, “I cannot say he does not pose a danger to his child.”
She also told Young and Wheeler that they had a year to comply with the court’s conditions and that if they did not, the government could make other recommendations. Both have been ordered to undergo substance abuse testing, follow the recommendations from a psychological evaluation, receive individual therapy and take parenting classes.
Albert warned Young and Wheeler that it was not just about participating in the services.
“It’s about taking in what they’re trying to teach you and learning from it and progressing from it,” the judge explained. That is the only way, she said, she would be able to return the boys to them and know that the children would be safe.