Relisha Rudd called it the “trap house.”
For nearly two years, the missing 8-year-old had been living in the shelter for homeless families at the former D.C. General Hospital, a grim place with bedbugs and no playground. Relatives said the second-grader, who slept with a teddy bear she named “Baby,” wanted out so desperately that she would fake asthma attacks to stay at their homes. Adults who were close to her at her old school described her arriving with filthy clothes, dirty hair and an empty stomach, and they said she often didn’t want to leave.
“She was like, ‘Can I stay?’ ” said Regina Pixley, a security guard at Ferebee-Hope Elementary School, which Relisha attended from pre-kindergarten until last June, when the school closed. “And we were like, ‘Baby, you have to go home.’ ”
It has been more than a month since Relisha’s family has seen her and more than a week since the police search for her became a “recovery mission.” People who knew her now talk about her in both the present and past tense, revealing in the same breath their hopes and fears.
But whether Relisha is alive or dead, the instability of her life — evictions from apartments where gunfire was common, weeks at motels and then months at the homeless shelter with a troubled mother and three brothers — put her on the radar of school administrators, social workers, shelter employees and volunteers, who make up the safety net for the city’s vulnerable children.
The signs of a child struggling were there: A cheerleading coach at times helped her wash up in a restroom at school, where clean clothes were kept on hand for her. Social workers responded to at least three reports of abuse or neglect within the family, with police called at least twice. Shelter volunteers noticed a little girl who was eager to participate in two after-school programs but who often wasn’t there. And family members were aware that the girl who dressed as a princess for Halloween was being swapped among them and that, in recent months, a new person had joined her rotation of caregivers: Kahlil Tatum, a 51-year-old shelter custodian who took her for sleepovers at his house and on outings to the movies and the mall. Then simply took her.
A deep look at Relisha’s life — and the adults she came in contact with before walking away with Tatum, who was found dead last week — shows that the details of her disappearance may be unique but the circumstances of her life were not. In recent days, officials have used the phrase “other Relishas” to describe children who live on the edge but whose chances of falling are hard to predict, even by people supposed to catch them.
“Who failed Relisha?” said Shannon Smith, the cheerleading coach who looked after her. “I believe everybody failed that girl. The school, the system, the doctors, the police and everybody else that should have had something to do with her.”
In a video her mother shot, Relisha dances in the family’s yellow-walled room at the shelter. Skinny arms and legs flapping, she bounces to the beat against a bare backdrop of six twin beds pushed together. Her three younger brothers leap around her, all energy. There is joy in Relisha’s movements, but her expression remains flat. If she is smiling, it is hard to tell.
“Get it, Relisha,” her mother, Shamika Young, shouts on the video. “Get it, li’l mama.”
Young, 27, also lived in shelters as a child. She was 6 years old when she entered Virginia’s foster-care system, where she bounced between homes until the age of 18, relatives said. About a year later, she had Relisha.
Young’s Facebook page depicts a woman who brags one day about how she dresses her children — “all got Helly Hansen coat on their little backsides” — and on another day how she is “high as a kite.” Her posts are filled with obscenities, but they also reveal self-doubt.
“Sometime I wish my mother didn’t have me and sometimes I wonder how many people wanna see me dead and sometimes I wonder why I have kids and sometimes I wonder why the world is the way it is,” she wrote two years ago. “I wonder who I am.”
Shortly after Relisha was born — on Oct. 29, 2005, at Washington Hospital Center — the family moved into an Edgewood apartment complex where gang members were neighbors and shootings were common. Once, police descended on the Northeast D.C. apartments when a man pulled a gun from behind an outdoor air-conditioning unit and, according to a witness, “began firing at everyone around Edgewood.” Seven people were wounded.
The family left in 2007. Public records show that at least five of Young’s former landlords filed cases against her for breaching tenant contracts, with the latest eviction notice coming shortly before the family wound up at a motel off Bladensburg Road for three months and then entered the shelter in 2012.
Relisha, who sometimes called the shelter “the G,” hated it there, relatives said. She would tell them that it was “infested and the food ain’t good,” said her aunt Ashley Young, 26.
The shelter, run out of an old public hospital beside a morgue and a methadone clinic, was intended to be a temporary solution to overcrowding elsewhere when the city started moving homeless families there more than a decade ago. Now, nearly 600 children call it home. In a report last year, the Washington Legal Clinic described complaints from residents about heating outages, mice, and bedbugs and other insects. Raccoons have been spotted inside bathrooms and closets.
Ashley Young said her niece would fake illnesses to stay at her place or beg to go to her grandmother’s home, where she had a cat named Missy. When Relisha began spending time with Tatum, her aunt said, she viewed it as another “escape route” for the girl.
Shamika Young said that she met Tatum in 2005 and that her daughter considered him a godfather. Relisha would come back from their outings with a new outfit or a manicure, relatives said. For Christmas, he bought her a tablet device. Few in Relisha’s family questioned his generosity.
“I never got a bad vibe about him,” said Antonio Wheeler, 28, the father of Relisha’s two youngest brothers. Irving Rudd, the father of Relisha and another brother, did not respond to efforts to contact him.
When Relisha couldn’t spend time with Tatum, she would make her aunt call him, Ashley Young said. “She would say: ‘Why, God-daddy? Why don’t you come get me?’ ” Young said. Whenever Tatum took her, she added, he “always brought her back when he was supposed to.”
Until the day he didn’t.
On March 19, police began the search for Relisha after a social worker from Payne Elementary School, concerned about her mounting absences, showed up at the shelter and discovered the truth about Tatum, who had been listed on school records as Relisha’s doctor. By that point, Relisha had been with Tatum since Feb. 26, police said, but no one had reported her missing. On March 20, police found Tatum’s wife, Andrea Tatum, facedown on a motel bed in Oxon Hill, shot in the head. Tatum was found 11 days later in a Northeast Washington park shed, dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Relisha’s grandmother Melissa Young, who signed Relisha up for Girl Scouts and laughs about how she ate more shortbread cookies than she sold, now questions why the shelter staff didn’t notice that her granddaughter was gone. Every night, staff members knock on doors and ask how many kids are in each room, but they don’t open the doors to look, she said. If they had, they would have seen Relisha’s bed empty many nights.
On her phone, Young keeps a photo of her granddaughter in a lime-green outfit she bought her. Relisha, her hands on her hips, striking a pose, stares into the camera. She’s not smiling but offers a sassy pout. The front of her shirt says, “Love Me.”
Relisha didn’t just ask Shannon Smith if she could join the cheerleading team at Ferebee. She showed her that she had been watching the other girls by thrusting her arms in the air and spelling V-I-C-T-O-R-Y.
“I was surprised that little girl spelled that word,” Smith recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, she’s one of ours.’ ” Smith watched over her, offering rides when needed and calling her mother when she didn’t show up for school. Then there were days she washed her up and fixed her hair.
“Once you gave her a hug and cleaned her up, she was just a beautiful girl,” Smith said. “All that girl wanted was to be hugged.”
Smith and Pixley, the security guard at the school, said there were many days when they saw Relisha and one of her brothers waiting for a ride home long after most of the other children had left. Smith recalled how once, when she returned late from chaperoning a school trip and found the two there, she called their mother and offered to drive them home. Smith said Young didn’t give an address and hung up. Young then called the school and directed her children to leave on foot, Smith said.
What happened next could not be corroborated with authorities, but Smith and Pixley said that the children were found late that night at a nearby laundromat and that the police and the District’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) were notified. Melissa Young denied that her grandchildren were ever found at a laundromat and said Shamika would often go hungry so the children could eat.
Shamika Young also said she has been a good mother to Relisha and her brothers. “Think what you want to think,” she said. “Only God knows the truth.”
Mindy Good, a CFSA spokeswoman, said that by law she can’t speak about individual cases. But confidential files read to The Washington Post show that the agency sustained complaints at least three times involving Young’s children. The first was lodged in July 2007, when Relisha was almost 2 years old. A social worker noted “great concern” for the girl, who showed signs of abuse, according to the file. But authorities “were unable to determine how these injuries happened.” Two law enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about the case said police were called but an investigation concluded that no assault had occurred.
Three years later, in April 2010, a social worker noted that one of Relisha’s brothers was not getting the medical attention he needed after surgery. The file says the family was living in “environmentally unsafe conditions,” with debris and cigarette butts scattered throughout the apartment.
The last incident occurred in November, while the family was at the shelter. A social worker, according to the file, noted a “lack of supervision and abuse.” One of Relisha’s brothers had been “thrown to the ground” and slapped until his lip bled, the report says. The law enforcement officials said police intervened but got conflicting stories about who hit the boy. No charges were filed.
Relisha’s relatives described all three reports as exaggerated or false. In each case, the children remained in the home. Only after Relisha went missing were her three brothers placed in foster care.
CFSA Director Brenda Donald declined to be interviewed. But in a letter to The Post, she wrote that “the fact that CFSA does not remove a child as a result of a substantiated abuse or neglect allegation does not mean we do not provide any services.”
When Donald took over the agency in 2012, the District had one of the nation’s highest removal rates and one of the lowest in placing children with relatives once they were taken from the home, Good said. A year earlier, the city’s Citizen Review Panel, which is charged with monitoring the agency, issued a report that called for “significant reforms to prevent unnecessary removals — and to prevent the unnecessary harm they cause to children and families.”
As of April 2, the agency was serving 2,973 children. Of those, 61 percent were at home with their families, the result of an intentional effort. Good said a particular challenge for the agency comes in dealing with families who teeter constantly between stability and crisis; they aren’t in dire enough straits to require drastic interventions, but they remain troubled. Social workers have to rely on their best judgments, she said, “without the benefit of any foolproof method for predicting human behavior or other variables.”
“All of us in social services work to serve so many fragile families,” Good said. “We know the stakes are high. Succeeding makes a wonderful difference. But when even best efforts aren’t enough, it’s devastating.”
In the days before divers plunged into the Anacostia River, looking for what many hoped they wouldn’t find — Relisha’s body wrapped in one of the 42-gallon trash bags Tatum had purchased before killing himself — the girl’s family offered tearful pleas for her return on television.
“Bring Relisha back,” they begged at a candlelight vigil. “Bring my baby back.”
But even as they held on to hope, they began pointing fingers. At that same vigil, several relatives huddled together, screaming about who had lost Relisha — accusing one another of not doing enough, not crying enough, not worrying enough.
Shamika Young, who has been accused of giving police conflicting information about her daughter’s whereabouts and lying to the school about her many absences, is now under investigation by a grand jury for obstruction of justice. She has gone into hiding but said she wants the public to know: “It’s not my fault.”
Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has also pushed back against critics who say Payne failed Relisha. One school official said Payne’s social worker, who noticed how Relisha and her brothers struggled to adjust to their new classrooms, had Payne staffers check in with them and referred Relisha’s family to a community-based group for more support.
Although Relisha was absent more than 30 days before a school social worker alerted child welfare officials, most of those absences were excused by family members who said the child was in the care of a “Dr. Tatum.” Henderson said the only reason anybody started looking for Relisha is because a school social worker went to the shelter and realized that “something was not right.”
Henderson says the system has devoted increasing resources to addressing truancy, but it remains an enormous problem linked to issues beyond the district’s ability to solve. “We teach children, that’s our thing,” she said. “We can co-locate services, we can collaborate with other agencies — but we cannot solve the problems of the world in the schoolhouse.”
The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, the nonprofit agency being paid $13 million a year by the city to run the shelter, has also come under fire. At a recent D.C. Council committee hearing, Sue Marshall, executive director of the agency, defended the shelter’s policies. She acknowledged that the shelter had fired at least four employees for having inappropriate relationships with residents. But not Tatum, who gave toys and money to shelter children before Relisha’s abduction.
For many advocates, Relisha has become more than a face on an Amber Alert. She’s a potent symbol. “How do we prevent this from happening again?” asked Anniglo Boone, executive director of the Consortium for Child Welfare, a coalition of nonprofit agencies. “How do we prevent this for other Relishas?”
“Other Relishas” — two words that have become the legacy of a little girl who loved pink and purple and wanted to be a model or a singer. A child who threw herself into art projects and helped volunteers set up for the shelter’s after-school programs. At the Freedom School, operated in the shelter by the National Center for Children and Families, project director Dennita Ferrell recalled how Relisha loved the program’s motivational song, “(Something Inside) So Strong.” She jumped to her feet whenever it came time to sing it.
“Something inside so strong,” Relisha belted out. “I know that I can make it. Though you’re doing me wrong, so wrong.”
Justin Jouvenal, DeNeen L. Brown, Aaron C. Davis and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this story.