Sweet-faced 8-year-old Relisha Rudd deserved better.
She deserved a mother who protected and cared for her and didn’t hand her over to a janitor.
She deserved a school where the teachers and principal went on high alert for her when she stopped showing up to class for a long time.
She deserved a social safety net that recognized her life was chaotic, unstable and dangerous — and caught her.
She deserved not to be the one — while still in elementary school — to try to take care of her three younger brothers, ages 7, 5 and 4.
And right now, she deserves as much attention as a missing Malaysian airliner. She deserves an all-out nationwide manhunt.
She deserves the rage, tears, sympathy and tireless work of a city and a nation that shouldn’t stand for the kind of eight years she’s lived and the way she simply disappeared into the ether on Feb. 26.
I understand that Relisha’s mother, Shamika Young, has probably made some horrible decisions in her 27 years. Beginning a family of four children in her teens, with little sign of stability, was one of them. Handing her child over to the janitor at a homeless shelter who was known for handing out $20 bills and gifts to other little girls was another one.
But this isn’t about Young, and this isn’t a debate about the life choices of poor mothers and whether they deserve our sympathy and assistance. Say what you want about homeless parents — many are victims of a whiplash economy and an affordable-housing crisis, many others are just plain careless — but their children didn’t ask for this life.
It is up to us to help these kids, to do everything we can to give them a better life and a better future. Ask yourself: Have we done that?
During her 18 months at the D.C. General family homeless shelter — the crown jewel of the city’s housing calamity — Relisha endeared herself to the staff at the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project. One of her favorite playtime roles, remembered longtime volunteer Kathleen Fawcett, was caretaker.
Relisha took care of dolls. She took care of the vegetables and plants in the little community garden near the shelter.
“Now we’re here tonight to ask the city, to ask the country, to ask everyone to help take care of Relisha,” Fawcett said during a candlelight vigil Saturday.
The janitor, 51-year-old Kahlil Malik Tatum, said he would take care of her. Hired to mop the floors, Tatum was known for giving attention and gifts to the children who lived in the shelter.
He grew so close to Relisha that she used to go home and spend the night with him, her family members said. On Feb. 26, Young let the janitor take Relisha home, and she hasn’t been seen at the shelter since.
Tatum walked around that shelter dressed in Polo, drove an immaculate SUV and often showed the young women there wads of cash.
“Those younger mothers, they are vulnerable, they didn’t see him coming,” said Sheron Woods, 53, who confronted Tatum after he tried to give her 11-year-old daughter a crisp $20 bill.
All of the women who were gathered outside the shelter at the vigil said they adored Tatum.
“He was so nice to all of us,” said Tiara Davis, 30, whose 8-year-old daughter was one of Relisha’s closest friends.
“We didn’t see this coming,” she said. Tears streamed down her cheeks, underneath her glasses. “We’re just so vulnerable here. Like we’re just being preyed on.”
The homeless have always been vulnerable to exploitation, said Derrica Wilson, head of the Black and Missing Foundation, a group that works to provide equal coverage and investigation for all people who have disappeared.
“We actually see that time and time again. Predators prey on the homeless,” said Wilson, a former Falls Church police officer who went into schools to teach children about crime prevention.
What happened to Relisha? The fact that Tatum’s wife was found dead in an Oxon Hill motel room last week and that he is wanted in her slaying leads to the worst kind of speculation.
Tatum could be anywhere with Relisha. Police said they’re searching for him in Richmond but haven’t said why.
I look at his photo, and I look at hers. And I think about the 600 other kids crammed into an old hospital, desperate for the stability and safety that so many children in our affluent region take for granted.
In a shelter, life is chaotic and transient. People are moving in and out of beds, in and out of schools. D.C. General has the largest concentration of vulnerable children in the entire city, yet the District’s Child and Family Services Agency doesn’t have an office there or anyone specifically assigned to it.
Take a look at that picture of Relisha’s sweet face. Even before she disappeared, her eyes were so sad. She deserved our protection. She didn’t get it.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.