March 28, 2014

The unimaginable story of Relisha Rudd’s disappearance has captured our attention for the past 10 days and will no doubt continue to do so in weeks to come, as we ask: What went wrong?

Like many others, I have been riveted and horrified by the story of the 8-year-old who allegedly was abducted from the D.C. General family shelter by 51-year-old janitor Kahlil Malik Tatum. But it wasn’t until I read the headline of Petula Dvorak’s March 25 Metro column that I was compelled to do something.

“We have failed Relisha. All of us.” The words hit me like a punch in the gut. Because I know Dvorak is right.

We have all failed Relisha, as well as the hundreds of other children and parents living in shelters across the city. We have failed families sleeping six across in a space the size of a hospital room at D.C. General, those who had been staying at recreation centers until a judge told the city to find them more humane quarters, and those sleeping on pallets, in cars and on grates. Shame on us.

No matter how large or small, the numbers overwhelm us: 11,547 homeless people throughout the metropolitan region; 6,865 in the District; 884 at D.C. General, 539 of them children. Even the story of just one beautiful girl who went missing leaves us uncertain what to do.

“From the details of this one life to the big-picture perspective, there would seem plenty of [opportunities] to make a contribution. And yet it seems to paralyze me,” a friend wrote on my Facebook page after seeing a photo of Relisha last week.

But what if Relisha were your daughter, your niece, your neighbor? What would you do then? You would turn paralysis and outrage into action. That’s what we must do now. We need to:

●Demand that Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) conduct a full investigation and report the findings within 30 days. How could this have happened? Where is the safety net?

●Call upon the D.C. Council and school board to review the policies and procedures of D.C. Public Schools, the Department of Human Services, the Child and Family Services Agency and other child-serving agencies. Clearly, schools should report missing children before they have 10 unexcused absences. (My children’s school gives parents a phone call if students are missing a couple hours.)

●Talk to your children about whom they can trust. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s Take 25 campaign encourages families to take 25 minutes to talk to their children about safety and abduction prevention.

●Mentor a young person. The Catalogue for Philanthropy lists volunteer opportunities at many local educational and human services organizations. Be an extra pair of eyes so that vulnerable young people don’t fall through the cracks.

●To help address the broader issue of family homelessness, employers can take a chance on people with a limited education or no fixed address. That’s what A Wider Circle’s Mark Bergel did when Chanel Giles walked through the door. She had experienced the worst that life has to offer. An alcoholic father and abusive stepfather. Teenage pregnancy. A series of “wrong” men. Depression. Personal bankruptcy. Homelessness. Prison time. Bergel started Giles on the phones. Five promotions later, she is associate director of operations.

●With an election coming up in the District, press candidates to explain what steps they would take to address the family homelessness crisis. What about the affordable housing crisis? What’s the alternative to D.C. General? If you are a Democrat who lives in the District, be sure to vote in Tuesday’s primary election. There’s no better way to let your voice be heard.

Relisha disappeared on our watch. We need to turn our paralysis, anger and sorrow into collective action and ensure that something like this never happens again.

Janice L. Kaplan is a D.C. writer and communications consultant.

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