We needed an examination of Relisha Rudd’s life, not her disappearance


This undated photo provided by the FBI shows Relisha Rudd. (AP)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist September 4

Wasn’t us. Not our problem. Not our job.

That’s what the District’s report on the handling of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd’s disappearance sounds like.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

It took six months for city officials to come up with all the excuses to wash their hands of a neglected — and now vanished — little girl living in the District’s largest family homeless shelter.

Investigators found a bunch of ways they could do better, but even if all their recommend-
ations were followed, “no justifiable government actions would have prevented Relisha’s tragic disappearance,” the 12-page review said.

Wrong.

This investigation and review shouldn’t have been about Relisha’s disappearance — and presumably her death. What needs to be examined is her life. The city doesn’t need only a 12-page review of how a messed-up family that lied and deceived lost their kid, or how a child racked up more than 30 days of absences from school before someone took action, or how “internal practices and policies” of different city agencies don’t lead to effective communication or how agencies need to “standardize documentation requirements.”

No. We need to go back and figure out how we got here in the first place.

What happened to Relisha Rudd is, ultimately, a story about homelessness. And it’s a story about how checking boxes, writing reports and cross-checking documents does not create a community that cares.

Judith Meltzer, deputy director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy and one of the authors of the review, nailed it when she said the family shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital “is not a place to raise children. The city needs to take aggressive action to come up with alternatives for homeless families.”

Yes, Relisha’s mom made a stupid decision in late February when she handed her child over to Kahlil Tatum, a janitor at the shelter who, police believe, killed his wife, himself and Relisha.

And Tatum lied when he signed an agreement that he wouldn’t fraternize with residents at the shelter, then went on to give presents and cash to several young girls, including Relisha.

And, yes, he wrote fake letters to the school pretending that he was “Dr. Tatum” and Relisha was sick. He fooled officials — who hadn’t heard of a Dr. Tatum but didn’t question his letters for days on end. It’s hard to make rules for someone who ignores them.

“There is no accounting for evil action,” Meltzer said.

But what the nation’s capital has sanctioned — a miniature, shameful city of about 800 displaced and homeless residents who live in squalid, depressing conditions next to the morgue and among the clients at a methadone clinic — is fertile ground for evil.

Instead of addressing the conditions the city created that allow such evil to flourish, the report lets its leaders highlight how messed up Relisha’s family was.

Homelessness is messed up. And every decision, every complication, every problem is magnified by the conditions of living in a shelter.

It’s like throwing people into the deep end, watching them drown and then ticking off all the ways they didn’t save themselves.

We weave a complex, costly safety net, a gossamer thing that is inevitably full of tears and holes. And we fixate on how to mend those holes rather than focusing on putting solid ground beneath these families’ feet.

If Relisha hadn’t been in a shelter but lived in a stable, affordable and safe neighborhood, there’s a good chance her neighbors and friends would have noticed if she disappeared.

If Relisha had been in her neighborhood school, where teachers and administrators knew her family well, someone would have set the alarm bells off long before those 30 absences.

My kids were but 15 minutes late before our attentive and aggressive D.C. public school secretary began calling everyone under the sun. When half of the kids in a school are homeless, it’s tough to ever achieve that kind of scrutiny.

If Relisha had lived in a home, maybe her mom would never have considered turning her kid over to someone else.

So why should the government have to fix a family that’s so messed up?

If you accept that homelessness was what pushed this family over the edge, then it makes perfect sense to look at how this city has been changing and the role government has played in it.

Hundreds of expensive condos go up every month, and hundreds of affordable housing units disappear. The construction, the permits, the land sales, the languishing of federal housing units, the waived requirements for affordable housing percentages have all contributed to the city’s affordable housing crisis and the soaring number of homeless families.

City residents, elected officials and government bureaucrats spend hours at meetings debating curb cutouts in Georgetown, soccer stadiums, the horrid name of a sports team, or streetcars or dog parks or bike lanes or cafe sidewalk permits. Don’t we have an obligation to ensure that all children — no matter how messed up their parents are — have a good start in life? Isn’t that what a civilized society does?

It should be our problem. It should be our job. Yes, us.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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