Opinion writer

“Who failed Relisha? I believe everybody failed that girl.” That was the eye-catching headline that accompanied the continuation of Sunday’s front-page Post article about missing 8-year-old Relisha Rudd . The quotation, part of a remark by an elementary school cheerleading coach who knew Relisha, essentially placed responsibility for her disappearance with the “school system, the doctors, the police and everybody else that should have had something to do with her.” Virtually everyone — and, ultimately, no one — is held accountable. Unfortunately, blaming “everybody” masks critical facts.

“Everybody” wasn’t responsible for Relisha’s birth on Oct. 29, 2005. She was conceived by Shamika Young and Irving Rudd, her parents.

“Everybody” didn’t move Relisha into a neighborhood where gunfire was as plentiful as the air around her. Neither did “everybody” chase her non-rent-paying family from apartment to apartment and, finally, to the grim and bug-ridden homeless shelter in the old D.C. General Hospital building.

She wasn’t neglected or abused by “everybody.” Relisha had a grandmother, aunt and uncle who knew about her living conditions. “Everybody” didn’t let her go to school hungry and in filthy clothes. Her mother did. Relisha was failed by those most responsible for her welfare: her family.

What’s more, the disgraceful D.C. shelter where Relisha, her siblings and mother have lived for nearly two years wasn’t “everybody’s” responsibility.

The city pays at least $13 million a year to the nonprofit Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness to operate that facility, which houses more than 500 adults and nearly 600 children.

D.C. General is where Relisha met Kahlil Tatum, the janitor — employed by Community Partnership — who is the prime suspect in her disappearance. Tatum, who was wanted by the FBI in connection with his wife’s murder, apparently killed himself before authorities could question him.

The discussion of “everybody” was joined this week by Mayor Vincent Gray, who ordered a review of the actions of all District government agencies that had contact with Relisha before her disappearance.

But restricting the review to the actions of workers who had contact with Relisha presumes that fault, if any, lies with one of them. To get at who and what failed Relisha, the review should also cover the operations and safety conditions at D.C. General.

Gray’s order excludes review of the role played by BB Otero, the deputy mayor for health and human services.

Instead, Gray has placed Otero, along with Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, in charge of the review.


Otero oversees the cluster of city agencies that provide homeless services. What has she been up to during the downhill slide of the shelter at D.C. General?

There are many stories about broken security cameras and the sale and use of drugs, as well as accounts of staff breaking the rules by interacting socially with adults and children at the shelter. But those violations were taking place long before Relisha disappeared.

The previous operator of the D.C. General shelter, Families Forward Inc., was fired by the Fenty administration in April 2010 after allegations of sex between male employees and female residents were confirmed. A ­follow-up investigation found that women were harassed by shelter workers, residents had not received proper services and case managers were falling down on the job.

The city hired Community Partnership to manage the shelter that spring.

To what effect?

In August 2012, the city inspector general issued a special evaluation of the D.C. General Shelter. Among the findings: Some Community Partnership employees who had direct contact with families and children at the shelter had not undergone criminal background checks or drug and alcohol testing as required by the contract and D.C. law. All shelter employees, “including . . . six with criminal convictions, who ‘came to us [the Community Partnership] from Families Forward were grandfathered in’ regardless of their criminal background.”

The inspector general concluded almost two years ago that children living under those conditions “may be at risk.” Otero was sent a copy of that report. Since 2012, key Gray administration officials have known, or should have known, about this potentially dangerous situation.

The Post reported late last month — not in 2010 or 2012, mind you — that the “facility’s rules prohibit social interaction . . . But residents . . . said that ban was regularly flouted — in particular by Tatum, who several mothers said had offered money to their daughters in plain view of other shelter staff.”

Such exploitation, apparently, has gone on for years.

Relisha’s family and workers directly responsible for her well-being can’t be let off the hook.

Standards were in place. They evidently weren’t enforced. Feet can’t be held to the fire when there is no flame.

And for that absence, leaders of Community Partnership, D.C. Health and Human Services and the overall boss, the deputy mayor for health and human services, should take the heat.

Everybody didn’t fail Relisha. Enough people up and down the line did.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.