Shamika Young is fighting to get her three boys back. They are in foster care, as she was. And since the disappearance of her 8-year-old daughter, Relisha Rudd, in March, the welfare of her younger brothers has been the subject of a lot of hand-wringing.

Should she get them back?

The easy answer is no.

Young is a 28-year-old, unemployed mother of four. She struggles with depression and other emotional problems, has been investigated for neglect at least three times and lived for almost two years with all her kids in a homeless shelter.

I was interviewing Relisha’s friends at a candlelight vigil for her in March when we were all jostled by an argument that broke out with family members and friends screaming at each other over who cared about the little girl the most and who had her last before she disappeared.

What a mess.

But Young’s case is complex and heartbreaking, as Washington Post reporters Lynh Bui and DeNeen Brown discovered as they watched her try to piece together her years in the Virginia foster-care system. And to repeat the tragedy of her own childhood — taking children from a troubled mother and placing them with an ever-shifting cast of foster caregivers — goes back to that definition of insanity that has you repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

That idea represents a nationwide shift in how child-welfare agencies everywhere are dealing with cases of child abuse and neglect.

The motto for D.C. social workers used to be “when in doubt, pull them out.” Cover your behind when you smell trouble in the home. But since then, studies, experience and facts show that a reunited family with lots of counseling, support, therapy and court supervision can thrive.

Keeping families together strengthens the social fabric and costs government less. Young is living proof of the damage done when a family is torn apart instead of repaired.

Diagnosed as a “mildly retarded” middle-schooler who suffered from depression and anxiety, Young heard voices telling her to kill her foster family and herself. She spent her childhood shuttling between foster homes, group homes and mental health facilities.

When she signed herself out of foster care at 18 and had four children with two men, she had no training on how to be a good mother. Social services investigated the family three times on charges of neglect and abuse. All three times, the charges were dropped. Landing in a homeless shelter with all her kids was familiar: Her mom did the same thing.

Missing 8-year old Relisha Tenau Rudd. (Courtesy of Homeless Children's Playtime Project)

Relisha, who hated the shelter, often stayed with relatives. Eventually, her group of caregivers included Kahlil Tatum, a 51-year-old janitor at the homeless shelter whom Young had met years earlier. He became such a trusted figure in their family that Relisha called him “Goddaddy.”

I talked to a few moms at the shelter who said Tatum was kind to them and their young children. He handed out crisp $20 bills and bought little girls presents. Creepy to most. But perhaps to Young, it looked like something else: kindness.

“It is interesting to wonder whether, if things had turned out differently, we might have been lauding Relisha’s mother for her resourcefulness in finding a mentor for her daughter,” said Matthew Fraidin, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia who specializes in child abuse and neglect cases.

Most of his casework shows that most troubled families that stay together with lots of support and social-worker involvement have children faring better than the ones removed from their parents. Too often, families are broken apart not because of abuse but rather neglect. And neglect is often a byproduct of poverty.

For a long time, Relisha’s story was pretty similar to the story hundreds of homeless kids living in shelters can tell. It’s a generational cycle of poverty and neglect, a pattern that can be broken with housing, employment, counseling and support.

But her mother’s faults go beyond being poor and troubled.

When Relisha’s school first noticed that her absences had piled up, police said that Young assured school officials that her daughter was with “Dr. Tatum,” being treated for an illness. Tatum was not a doctor. His wife was found shot dead in a motel when police went looking for him in March. Then he killed himself a couple days into a massive search for the little girl, who has never been found.

Young now says her daughter was at Grandma’s, and it was her grandmother who turned the second-grader over to Tatum. Young’s mother disputes that.

We don’t know who is telling the truth. What we do know is that when the school tried to intervene, Young probably lied and imperiled the search for Relisha, costing authorities precious days.

So where does that leave us? Where does that leave the D.C. judge weighing whether Young and her boyfriend, Antonio Wheeler, deserve to regain custody of Relisha’s three younger brothers?

Until we know the whole story of what happened to Relisha, her family cannot be reunited.

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