The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two girls went missing from the same D.C. shelter 8 years ago. One came back. The other was Relisha Rudd.

The circumstances of the second-grader’s disappearance from the homeless shelter were unusual, but her vulnerability was not.

Some of the dozens of people participating in a remembrance celebration for Relisha Rudd on Feb. 27, 2016. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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When Jamila Larson saw that a D.C. police commander was calling, she figured it was about the meeting they had scheduled for the next morning. They had planned to talk about the department’s protocols for missing persons, an issue that had concerned Larson after a 14-year-old girl had run away from a D.C. homeless shelter and it seemed officials didn’t care.

But when Larson answered her phone, she learned the commander wasn’t calling about their meeting or that teenager.

He wanted to know if she knew Relisha Rudd, an 8-year-old who was missing from that same shelter.

Larson, who runs the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project — an organization that creates play spaces for kids in the city who don’t have homes — says she was asked to send all the information she had about Relisha to the police department. The emails she exchanged with that police commander confirm her account. They show she provided detailed notes about Relisha and about a dozen photos that her staff had taken. In many of those photos, the second-grader smiles playfully. But in one, she looks hauntingly into the camera with a too-stoic, too-grown expression.

Larson spent a recent evening going through those emails, reminding herself of that time. Eight years have passed since Relisha’s disappearance shook the city, but many people still think of her often, and especially in the first week of March, which marks the anniversary of her disappearance. Larson is one of those people. She still speaks about Relisha in the present tense, leaving open the possibility she might still be found alive.

“She holds such a special place in our hearts,” she says. “I think we owe it to her to not give up and to keep her picture and her story out there.”

I was among the Washington Post reporters who covered Relisha’s disappearance eight years ago, and I thought I had heard every haunting detail surrounding it. But it wasn’t until I called Larson recently that I learned something she hadn’t before shared publicly: Her memories of Relisha’s disappearance are also tied to another child at that shelter, one who had already shown Larson how easy it was for homeless children to fall off the map.

How Relisha went missing was unusual, but her vulnerability was not. That’s an important part of her story, and is worth remembering, because other homeless children right now are experiencing the same kind of instability Relisha knew. Her disappearance became a case study on how children can exist on the radars of multiple agencies and still slip through safety nets.

Relisha had been absent from school for more than 30 days before it was discovered she had been taken by Kahlil Tatum, a janitor at the D.C. General family shelter where she lived with her mother, stepfather and three younger brothers. Police launched an extensive search but before they could question Tatum about Relisha, they found him dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His death came more than a week after they found his wife, Andrea Tatum, fatally shot in a motel room and a month after Relisha was last seen.

The city has since made changes aimed at improving conditions for homeless children. The most visible one involved closing D.C. General, a grim place with bedbugs that Relisha used to call the “trap house.” Smaller shelters for families now exist across the city. And unlike the D.C. General that Relisha knew, those shelters have playgrounds.

Before Relisha Rudd went missing, the 8-year-old longed to escape D.C.’s homeless shelter

Larson says other positive changes aimed at keeping children without housing safe have been put in place. Those make it unlikely that the exact circumstances that led to Relisha’s disappearance could occur again. Still, she worries that the system meant to help homeless families too often fails to invest in preventive services.

“I still have concerns about what hasn’t changed,” Larson says. She says it took the pandemic for people to realize that the hotels the city used to house families temporarily didn’t have Internet access and that children placed there had to live surrounded by signs that warned against playing. At one of those hotels, a child was killed before she could celebrate her first birthday.

“We still haven’t learned to truly care about children experiencing family homelessness,” says Larson who used to work as a school social worker. “It’s still too narrowly seen as a housing issue, and I’m really worried about what’s happening, or not happening, with families behind closed doors.”

Larson had served as a mentor to that 14-year-old before she ran away from D.C. General. Larson says it bothered her that the city didn’t seem to be looking for the teenager. She recalls the girl’s mother making her own missing posters. That’s why she wanted to meet with the commander of the D.C. police Youth Investigations Division.

That teenager eventually was found in California and was back at the shelter by the time Relisha disappeared.

She now goes by the name Mahogany and is 23 years old. She says she remembers seeing Relisha at the shelter and noticing that they both were the only daughters in their families. She describes Relisha as having a sweet manner and a loud laugh.

‘She is still alive’: The hope behind a photo of Relisha Rudd released four years after she vanished

“I just remember thinking, ‘I feel like they’re going to find her,’ ” she says. “That’s just what I thought — that they would find her.”

When she considers what might have happened to Relisha, logic tells her that people who steal children hurt them. But, she says, “my heart can’t really stand to say it.”

Mahogany, who works in early-childhood education, says that when adults fall into homelessness, they bring their children along like “bags.” Those children often have to grow up faster than their peers and don’t have people looking out for them, she says. They don’t have people making sure they are fed or have deodorant or are going to school each day. “I don’t know if you want to call it luck or God, but we don’t have that,” she says.

She chose to run away from the shelter. Relisha didn’t get to choose. But Mahogany sees similarities between their experiences.

“If you have a ruby or precious diamond and no one is there to protect the thing that holds this treasure, then anything can happen to it,” she says. “Anything can happen.”