March 28, 2014

WHAT IS so disturbing about the events that led to the disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd from a Washington homeless shelter is not that people didn’t care or take action. Rather it is that the action taken — thought to be reasonable and responsible — was insufficient to protect this little girl. The safety net failed, and that must prompt a considered review of what further protections are needed to safeguard other vulnerable children from other troubled families.

Relisha was last confirmed to have been seen March 1 in the company of the man suspected to be her captor, shelter janitor Kahlil Malik Tatum, who is also accused of killing his wife. D.C. police, while not giving up hope of finding the girl alive, fear she may be dead. An assessment of what went wrong is complicated by the possible culpability of the girl’s mother, who, authorities say, placed her in the care of the man who may have killed her and then, along with the girl’s grandmother, lied about her whereabouts. But a safety net exists in part because some families are dysfunctional and some parents don’t safeguard their children; the system shouldn’t presume dysfunction, but it should be able to anticipate it.

An examination by Post reporters of Relisha’s case revealed some troubling issues that need to be addressed. Workers at the homeless shelter took no notice of the gifts and unusual attention the janitor lavished on Relisha in violation of employee rules. Social workers knew about earlier suspected abuse and other problems in the family but the children were allowed to stay, and it’s unclear whether this information was shared with school officials. There seems to have been confusion over when Relisha was last seen in class and whether child welfare officials showed sufficient urgency when contacted by the school about mounting absences.

Without doubt, though, the most glaring problem highlighted by this case is the unacceptable condition and operation of the shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital. Broken security cameras, unenforced curfews and people smoking marijuana with impunity were some of the complaints of residents catalogued by The Post’s Tara Bahrampour. The physical plant is substandard, programs to help people are woefully insufficient and case workers are overextended. It is simply unconscionable that children are housed in these conditions. City officials need to close the facility and arrange suitable shelter elsewhere or invest the resources necessary to make it liveable and help families out of their precarious situations.

Like the rest of Washington, we hope for a happy ending, with Relisha found alive and unharmed. But whatever the outcome of this terrible tale, there are lessons to be learned from her story.