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Social worker’s nightmare: The day he discovered Relisha Rudd was missing

Payne Elementary School Principal Vielka Scott-Marcus tried to protect the school and its students — including many homeless children not unlike Relisha — from the tragedy that unfolded. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The social worker from Payne Elementary School had a simple mission the day he drove to the D.C. homeless shelter where 8-year-old Relisha Rudd lived. He needed to get a doctor’s note.

By that Wednesday — March 19, 2014 — the second-grader had been absent from her Capitol Hill classroom for nearly three weeks without a written excuse. Relisha’s mother had said she was under the care of a doctor. LaBoné Workman, speaking publicly for the first time since Relisha went missing a year ago, said he talked to the man by phone, and then went to the family shelter to find him.

No one seemed to know who Workman was talking about when he arrived. Not the security guard at the door, not the confused case manager sitting in front of him. Workman started to get scared.

“I’m trying to find Dr. Tatum,” he said again, feeling his voice begin to crack. He tried a different question: “Do you have a Tatum?”

That was the moment he learned the “doctor” he’d been speaking with by phone was really a janitor at the shelter. “Everything kind of collapsed,” Workman said.

Workman’s inquiry into a child’s reported illness triggered a chain reaction. An Amber Alert went out for the second-grader, who was last seen alive March 1, 2014. Local and federal criminal investigations were launched.

Kahlil Tatum — Relisha’s supposed doctor — became the primary suspect in a frantic search for the missing girl that transfixed Washington and focused attention on the hundreds of homeless children living in a decrepit abandoned hospital in a hidden corner of the nation’s capital.

D.C. family homeless shelter beset by dysfunction, decay

Tatum, whom investigators believe shot and killed his wife in a Maryland motel room, was found dead of an apparent suicide in a Northeast Washington park where police were searching for Relisha. The girl is still missing a year later, and many fear she is dead.

In interviews with The Washington Post, Workman, a licensed social worker, and Payne Elementary’s principal, Vielka Scott-Marcus, recounted how they uncovered the deceit that had obscured Relisha’s disappearance, delaying any response for more than two weeks. They spoke of how they then tried to protect the school and its students — including many homeless children not unlike Relisha — from the tragedy that unfolded on highway billboards and the nightly television news, and for some, in their own lives.

Through the soul searching that followed Relisha’s disappearance, Workman said he has felt confident that he followed the school-system protocols meant to identify children who are in trouble. Although Relisha missed as many as 30 days of school throughout the year, according to police records, her family excused many of those absences because of supposed medical problems, and Workman had been in touch with the “doctor” who was caring for her, most likely talking to him after Relisha had gone missing.

Before Relisha went missing, she longed to escape D.C.’s homeless shelter

An investigation by the city concluded that, given the circumstances, school employees could not have prevented her disappearance. It recommended better information sharing among agencies working with homeless families, along with other changes. Workman said case managers at the shelter and the school do communicate regularly.

Some city officials credit Workman for going beyond what was required. It’s not typical for school counselors to go see their students’ doctors. But Workman said the day started as any ordinary one for him in his work with children in poverty, who often have unpredictable lives, as Relisha did.

“She was such a sweet girl,” he said. “I didn’t want her to fall through the cracks.”

Helping troubled kids

More than one in five students at Payne — 57 out of 258 — were classified as homeless last school year. The number reached 64 last month, as homelessness in the District continued to increase. Many of the children live “down the hill,” at the former D.C. General Hospital, the city’s family shelter. It’s four blocks and a world away from the coffee shops and freshly painted Capitol Hill rowhouses that surround the school.

Eight years old and homeless: In D.C., there are hundreds of other Relishas

For many homeless children, school is a refuge and a place they turn to for more than education. Scott-Marcus, Payne’s principal, said the school tries to meet the far-reaching needs of children who are struggling with hunger, family turmoil, or other challenges.

“You have to be ready for anything,” she said.

On a Monday in March, a fifth-grader showed up for a three-day camping trip, a much-anticipated class excursion, without a change of clothes or a toothbrush; a family needed help with transportation after they were moved from D.C. General to a Silver Spring motel; and one parent arrived looking for their children because another relative had picked them up Friday after they had been dismissed, and the weekend had passed with no contact. By 10 a.m, Scott-Marcus and her staff, including two full-time social workers and a psychologist, had assembled camping gear, doled out Metro tokens and contacted police. The children who had been picked up by the relative were found safe.

Workman, 49, who grew up in Columbia, Md., said social work is what he “was born to do.” His mother was a mental-health worker at St. Elizabeths Hospital, and his father a social worker in Baltimore. He said he struggled through school and got kicked out of college before he graduated and built a career working with troubled children. Over the years, he has spent his weekdays in inner-city schools, and his weekends, whenever possible, on the water, floating out on his kayak to fish.

Workman was an administrator in two special-education schools in the District before he returned to social work, when he came to Payne two years ago.

He works closely with students who have behavioral disabilities. He’s also the homeless liaison, which means he keeps extra uniform shirts in his office and provides transportation tokens, $50 gift cards for groceries, and referrals for mental health or other services to the children and their parents. He also helps monitor student attendance. City regulations spell out specific interventions when a child has accumulated three, five, 10, or more unexcused absences.

Absences were adding up

On March 5, 2014, Workman said he received a copy of a school-system-generated letter that reported Relisha had reached five unexcused absences for the school year.

He had been in touch with Relisha’s relatives regularly, since she and her younger brothers had enrolled at Payne after her former school closed the year before.

He knew Relisha’s brothers much better, as he was often called to their classrooms if they were acting out. He would bring them into the hallway for a chat or up to his office, where he keeps toy trucks and puzzles and matching face cards that help children put a name to the emotions they are feeling.

Relisha was mild-mannered, respectful and loved her class, Workman said. “Quiet kids sometimes don’t get the notice,” he said, “and that’s how she was.”

When Workman got Relisha’s absence letter, he asked the school security officer at the front door to flag him when her mother or stepfather came to pick up the boys that day. Relisha’s mother told him she was “under the care of Dr. Tatum.”

A lost mother and daughter

By the end of that week, Relisha’s grandmother handed Workman a small piece of paper with Tatum’s phone number on it. They said she had severe migraines and that Tatum had taken her to a hospital in another state for treatment.

Workman called the number. They exchanged phone calls over the weekend and the next week. When they spoke, Tatum confirmed he was treating Relisha for "neurological" issues. He said he was going to discharge her by the end of the following week and could provide documents to excuse her time away from school after that.

In the meantime, Relisha’s absences were adding up. When a child misses 10 days with no excuse, cases are supposed to be referred to the city’s Child and Family Services Agency. Workman said he delayed notification to give the family — and the doctor — more time to provide documentation. (Now, he said, he makes a referral in every case.)

In retrospect, Workman says, the doctor sounded unprofessional — “not doctorish” — on the phone. He even asked another case worker to call him. Ultimately, they trusted that he was telling them the truth.

“I have heard of doctors taking a special interest in patients,” he said. “I was glad someone was trying to help her.”

The following week started with a snow day. Workman reached Tatum on Wednesday morning, who gave him a fax number and asked him to send over a report showing which days Relisha was absent so he could write the letter. Workman tried to send the report, but the fax would not go through.

That Wednesday, March 19, was a hectic day at Payne. The heat was not working in half the building, and Workman was camping out in the principal’s office, where it was warm. Scott-Marcus overheard the back-and-forth between Workman and Tatum.

“This is getting ridiculous,” she said. “Go get the letter.”

After Workman went to the shelter and discovered that “Dr. Tatum” was a janitor, hours passed in a kind of fog. He remembers calling 671-SAFE, the city hotline for reports of child abuse, and being ushered into a different room. Waves of law enforcement officers came through. He said his “heart sank” when he saw Relisha’s mother, who was angry and insisting that her daughter was all right. At one point, he recalled, Relisha’s grandmother called and said she was on her way to pick up Relisha from Tatum’s house, but she wasn’t there.

Relisha’s untouched desk

By the next morning, a crisis intervention team was assembled at the school, with extra mental-health workers and security officers.

Counselors came to Relisha’s second-grade class, but they did not organize any assemblies or schoolwide events. The extra counselors stayed on hand for weeks for other children who needed help.

They tried to keep an even keel as emotions ran high inside and outside the school. Scott-Marcus said she imposed some boundaries, asking her staff not to crowd around the door to Relisha’s classroom to give her teacher a hug because, she said, “that becomes emotional, too.”

The aim was to keep Payne predictable and safe for its students, including Relisha’s brothers, who were placed in foster care but stayed on at the school, where they have familiar teachers and counselors to talk to.

After Relisha’s disappearance, who should care for her brothers?

“With whatever changes they could potentially be experiencing, this could be the one stable place in their lives,” Scott-Marcus said.

Relisha left many good friends behind, including one classmate who wrote about her every afternoon during free-writing time in her class.

They left Relisha’s desk in its place, with her school-issued textbooks and her name tag still pressed on top, for the duration of the school year. Although the search for the 8-year-old became less and less hopeful — police began referring to it as a recovery operation — her desk would be waiting for her if she ever came back.

“It was always our expectation that she would return to her second-grade class,” Scott-Marcus said.

“We remember her every day, we don’t think about her in the past,” she said. “We think about her as a student, and what our school story is and what makes us Payne.”

In the year that Relisha has been missing, Workman said he has felt “dumbfounded” and “deceived.” He wants to know: “Where is Relisha?” and “Who’s to blame?”

“We have to value all life,” he said. “If she is just allowed to disappear, I’m not sure how much value we say this young life had.”

Workman’s job has not changed. He still monitors attendance. The truancy letters still arrive most days. He finds himself stopping by students’ homes more often now, though, when they have not been in school. And if a teacher tells him someone has been away for a day or two, he picks up the phone. “Let’s not wait,” he said.