A close relative of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, a missing homeless girl who is the focus of an intense police search, said Relisha’s mother claimed in recent weeks that the child was safe, although she was in the care of a man who police suspect has vanished with her.
Shamika Young, Relisha’s mother, told Belinda Wheeler and other family members that her daughter was “fine” and that there was no cause to be worried.
But, it turns out, there was ample reason for concern.
Friday night, police obtained a warrant charging the man, Kahlil Tatum, with killing his wife, Andrea Tatum, in Prince George’s County this week.
The frantic search comes nearly a month after Young, 26, put Relisha in the care of Tatum, a 51-year-old janitor at the homeless shelter where they were living. Police think Relisha is still with Tatum, and they have expanded their search for the girl to central Virginia. Meanwhile, they are continuing to investigate the death of Andrea Tatum, who was found early Thursday in a Prince George’s motel room.
What is of particular concern to city officials, police authorities and child advocates is how Relisha came to be in the care of someone who was not a family member or a longtime friend of the family.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), in an interview Friday, described Relisha’s family as “troubled” and said that Young had come to the attention of the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency even before Relisha disappeared.
“I’ve been fully briefed on it, and I’m very concerned about what happened,” said Graham, who is chairman of the council committee that oversees the child-welfare agency. Without offering specifics, Graham said the agency previously investigated Relisha’s living conditions. “I know that there have been cases in the past,” he said.
Graham’s account mirrors observations from at least one family member, who said that child welfare officials have gone to Young’s apartment several times since 2007. An adult relative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to alienate other relatives, said that on one occasion, after a visit from social workers, Young’s mother called other family members asking whether they had room for Relisha to sleep. The relative added that at one point, city social workers were visiting Young’s apartment once or twice a week to make sure there was enough food and that the place was clean.
No explanation has emerged for why Young put Relisha in the care of Tatum, an employee of a homeless shelter on the grounds of the former D.C. General Hospital. But relatives said that Young, who has been living in the shelter for months, had been in the habit of putting her daughter in the care of various family members.
Relisha was enrolled at Payne Elementary School in Southeast Washington. She last attended school for a full day March 5, according to a source familiar with the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
Police said they suspect that on or about Feb. 26, Young, who grew up in foster care herself, had put the girl in Tatum’s care.
The source said that a teacher at Payne saw Relisha at the school March 7 and that Relisha said she had been sick and was staying with a grandmother.
School social workers became concerned after trying to contact Relisha’s family, according to the source. They referred the matter to Child and Family Services, which then alerted police and triggered an Amber Alert.
Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), said Friday that it was too soon to judge the child-welfare agency’s performance in the case, calling it “premature and highly irresponsible for anyone to be talking about who did what. . . . Right now, our number one priority is to find this girl.”
Referring to the child-welfare agency, Ribeiro said, “At this point, we have found nothing to indicate that anyone had dropped any balls on this.”
Meanwhile, on Thursday night, D.C. police notified Richmond authorities that they had reason to suspect that the girl might be in that area, said Gene Lepley, a spokesman for the Richmond police. Lepley said there had been no sightings of Relisha or Tatum in the area and that police had discovered no evidence that the girl was there.
“We have our eyes peeled,” Lepley said.
The dead woman was found at a Red Roof Inn in Oxon Hill after dozens of police officers and detectives converged on the motel, acting on a tip that Relisha was there. Police have not commented on how the woman died.
Relisha’s disappearance has upset children and teenagers at the shelter, said Jamila Larson, executive director and co-founder of Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, whose staff works at the shelter three nights a week.
“It’s completely enveloped all of us,” she said Friday. “Last night, a little girl who was a friend of Relisha’s was standing there looking down, despondent. She said, ‘Do you have a picture of her?’ . . . Not only do they miss their friend, but they’re scared.”
The adult relative of the missing girl said that while she and Young were talking in December, Young mentioned that a man at the shelter had taken interest in Relisha.
“The first thing I heard about him was that his wife and him fell in love with Relisha and they asked if they could be the godparents,” the relative said. “The next thing I heard about the man is around Christmas time. He bought [the child] an iPod and . . . other gifts.”
Police and a D.C. official with knowledge of the investigation said the shelter organization that employed Tatum conducted a background check on him in 2012 and that nothing emerged that would disqualify him from working at the shelter.
However, court records in Virginia show that he had numerous arrests and several convictions in the late 1990s and early 2000s for larceny and breaking and entering.
Relisha stands about 4 feet tall and weighs 70 to 80 pounds. A photo distributed by police shows her with her hair in braids and barrettes.
Police said they did not know what she might be wearing because it is still unclear which relatives or friends have most recently seen the missing girl.
Paul Duggan, Hamil R. Harris, Clarence Williams, Tara Bahrampour and Peter Hermann contributed to this report.
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