A lost mother
A lost mother and daughter
In the case of missing 8-year-old Relisha Rudd,emotional scars transcend generations
In the case of missing 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, emotional scars transcend generations
She paces the lobby of the District’s child welfare office in Southeast, waiting for her boys to arrive. The social worker is already 15 minutes late delivering them for their weekly visit, and Shamika Young knows it will eat into her three hours with them.
ABOVE: Shamika Young looks at a field across from Grafton School in Winchester, Va. Young’s daughter, Relisha Rudd, has been missing since March. (Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
“Where the hell are my kids?” asks Young, a question that could apply not only to her three sons in foster care, but also to her daughter, Relisha Rudd, who disappeared in March at age 8.
Young, 28, sinks into a mustard-colored armchair at D.C.’s Child and Family Services Agency. She’s wearing a purple Pokemon hat that shades her big almond eyes. Behind her, another mother unwraps fried fish dinners she’s brought for her visitation with her kids. Nearby, a small boy bounces in his chair and whispers to his caseworker, “Where’s Mommy?”
His longing is familiar to Young, who spent much of her own childhood in foster care. She entered the Virginia foster-care system at age 9, along with her three younger sisters and brother. For Young, the next nine years were a forced march through foster homes, institutions and group homes — a blur of abandonment, bewilderment and rage.
The roots of Relisha’s fate, and that of her brothers, lies here, in a mother who went unmothered, in a family beset by poverty, homelessness and neglect.
Young never wanted her own children to end up in foster care as she did. But then her daughter disappeared in the company of Kahlil Tatum, a janitor at the D.C. homeless shelter where the family was living. The janitor killed his wife and then himself, while Relisha simply vanished.
In the furor that followed, Relisha’s three younger brothers were taken from Young, who had been accused of neglect at least three times before and who police said initially misled them about her daughter’s whereabouts.
This is how she finds herself in this sad, sterile lobby on a bone-cold, rainy afternoon, with her family’s future in the hands of a D.C. judge still mulling whether she and her fiance, Antonio Wheeler, deserve to be parents. Christmas is coming, and Young longs to get her boys back home with her. She doesn’t want them to grow up the way she did and wind up just as damaged.
“Let me post it on Facebook, because I know they monitor my page.” She types: “Where the hell are my kids? Woman you are 30 minutes late for my visit.”
While she waits, she fills in an online missing person’s form for a private detective she wants to hire to find her daughter, whom she refuses to believe is dead.
“She is 43 inches tall. Black hair. Brown eyes. Stitches mark on her chin. She has asthma.” The person last seen with Relisha? She types: “Kahlil Tatum.”
Finally, a crisp voice calls across the lobby: “Miss Young.”
Young rises from her chair and disappears behind glass doors to the visitation area. Minutes later she walks back into the lobby holding the hand of her oldest son, who just turned 8. He glances around, suspicious of strangers, and scoots close to his mother.
“What do you want for Christmas?” Young asks in a soft tone.
“A Teenage Ninja Turtle,” the boy says, now oblivious to people looking at him. “A robot.” She gives him a pen to make a list. He writes in big looping letters: “set/ of/ Playdo.”
“You get five things,” his mom says. “What do you want for number four? Anything you want,” as if she could deliver the sky.
She takes his hand and walks him behind the glass doors, emerging seconds later carrying her youngest son into the lobby. He’s 4 and wants a blue racecar, a blue bike and a blue motorcycle. She jots it down for him.
Finally, she brings her 6-year-old. His long legs dangle from his mother’s embrace. They sit down and create his Christmas list, which includes a bike, a remote control car, Legos and a white Christmas.
“You want me to put a white Christmas tree in my house?” Young asks her son. She and Wheeler have moved from the homeless shelter to an apartment in Southeast, but the boys haven’t seen it. “Let me write it on the back.”
Then they head for the visitation area, where the lights are dim and toys line the floor.
It is, she says, no place for her children.
An image of Relisha, who disappeared in March, is imprinted on a T-shirt in Young’s home. (Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
‘A very sad, angry youth’
A thick case file documenting one harrowing year of Young’s childhood sits on a table at the Phillips foster-care program, where a social worker has promised to stay while Young reads it. Though she’s requested the file from the Northern Virginia nonprofit group, its contents could be traumatic, the social worker warns.
Young pulls up a chair and opens the brown polka-dot folder chronicling 1998 to 1999, the year she was 12. A case manager describes the middle-schooler, who was labeled mildly mentally retarded, as “a very sad, angry youth. She does not make eye contact or speak without considerable encouragement to do so. She cries easily and has reacted angrily to sudden transitions.”
For the next 37 minutes, Young reads in near silence, flipping the loose pages filled with one painful episode after another: tantrums; mental-health crises, heavy medication for agitation, depression and other behavioral disorders. Suicidal threats, voices urging her to kill her foster mother. Removal from two different foster homes. Two hospitalizations.
There’s a summary of what had come before that: A mother with a cocaine and alcohol addiction whose parental rights had been terminated in 1998. A father she had not seen since she was 2. Three younger sisters and a brother split apart in different foster homes. A grandmother she tried to stay connected to.
“Approximately 3:59 p.m. 5/18/99: Shamika became upset when she attempted to call her grandmother who was not home . . . She poured liquid soap all over the carpet, started cursing, slamming things around and threatened to pack her bags and leave home. She threatened to kill herself and reported that voices were telling her to do these things.” Her foster mother attempted to calm her, then called the police.
Young’s memories of this period are spotty. Some of it she recalls in vivid detail, reeling off the names of her foster parents, their children, locations of playgrounds and schools she attended. Other parts are hazy or missing entirely. She has no recollection, she says, of one of the foster families in the Phillips records, though she lived with them for four months.
Sometimes, Young says, “I don’t want to remember.”
Shamika Young sits with her former foster mother Violet Nichols in the room she once shared with her siblings in Alexandria, Va. (Photo by Mary F. Calvert for The Washington Post)
‘You Are Not Alone’
Young was born in the District on May 6, 1986, weighing 7 pounds 71/2 ounces. She was cared for by her maternal grandmother, Mary Young, until she was 2. Then there were chaotic stints with her mother, Melissa Young, who eventually took her five children to a homeless shelter in Alexandria.
They lived at the shelter for several months until one day Shamika and her siblings watched their mother being arrested for assaulting a police officer. Melissa Young was convicted in 1995, according to Virginia court records, though she says she was just trying to prevent the officer from taking her children away.
After living with her grandmother again, Shamika was placed in her first foster home in April 1996, one month before her 10th birthday. A white van, she says, carried her, her sister Ashley and her brother, Antonio, to a two-story house with cream-colored siding on a winding street in Fairfax County.
Their foster mother, Violet Nichols, now 64, still lives there. Young visits her one November evening as she begins trying to piece together her foster-care history. At the kitchen table, Nichols pulls out old photos of Young as a child. She looks so much like Relisha, Nichols says, that when she saw the missing 8-year-old on television, “I said, ‘That’s Shamika.’ ”
Nichols remembers Young and her two siblings well. When they arrived, she says, “they were wild as I don’t know what,” throwing billiard balls around the house and tugging on the family rabbit. But, Nichols adds: “You know what? They came in, and they almost called me mom from the beginning.”
Young has warm memories of her time with Nichols. “She had a bunny . . . a big, old back yard with a pool and a basketball court. She had a rec room with a pool table and a lot of toys,” she says. Her bedroom was painted pink. She’d sit on the floor listening on the radio to her favorite Michael Jackson song: “You Are Not Alone.”
Young can’t recall why she had to leave in 1998, and Nichols politely declines to offer any details. But the case file explains: “Shamika’s previous foster parent requested her removal. . . . Problem behaviors: Stealing, lying, being uncooperative, bedwetting.”
She spent four months in her next foster home, where her behavior deteriorated and she “threatened to kill everyone in the house,” her caseworker reported.
Then she was placed with Mable and Artie Bethea, who raised five children of their own and cared for 42 foster children at their home in Fredericksburg, Va. Foster-care agencies sent them the “worst of the worst” children, “so they sent us Shamika,” says Artie Bethea, who is now 68 and adopted Shamika’s younger brother Antonio.
During her eight months with the Betheas from October 1998 to June 1999, the 12-year-old tried to run away, fought with the other children and threatened to kill her foster parents, her records show. She would sometimes tell her foster mother: “I can’t take it anymore.”
On May 18, 1999, after a tantrum and more threats, Artie Bethea drove Shamika to a mental-health crisis facility for children nearby. Shamika hated it there.
“I felt alone,” she says. “I felt like I ain’t have nobody. I felt like I was in a hole.” She recalls being restrained in a bed and receiving shots of “calm-down medicine.”
She was sent back to the Betheas for a short time, then returned again to the crisis center. Eventually, she was put in a car by a social worker who told her she was going home, she says. Instead she was taken to Grafton, an institution for children with disabilities and emotional and behavioral problems in Winchester, Va.
“I went to sleep in the [social worker’s] car,” she remembers, and woke up when it came to a stop. “I said, ‘This ain’t home.’ ”
On a sunny fall day, Young returns to Grafton, a complex of red brick buildings now fenced off by high gates. When the car pulls into the parking lot, Young refuses to get out.
“Too many bad memories,” she says.
Weeks later, she finishes reading a case file filled with bad memories and sits without saying a word.
The social worker who has been waiting by the window asks Young whether she has questions or needs some time to compose herself.
Mary Young, left, Relisha Rudd’s great-grandmother, tries to comfort daughter Melissa Young, who is Relisha’s grandmother. The women were participating in a prayer and walk event March 31 for the missing 8-year-old. (Photo by Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)
Young shakes her head no. Then she puts her head on the table and cries.
‘Smack like me’
Relisha arrived a year and a half after Young signed herself out of the foster-care system on her 18th birthday. Exhausted from nearly 19 hours of labor on Oct. 29, 2005, Young marveled at her new daughter, who had light skin, a full head of hair and luminous eyes.
“I was blessed,” Young says. “She came out at the end of the day and looked smack like me.”
Relisha’s father, Irving Rudd, was 16 years older than Young, and had spent time in prison for the 1992 death of a toddler daughter named Tarricka. The couple split not long after Young gave birth to the first of her three sons, whom she calls her “three handsome kings.” Antonio Wheeler, 28, who also spent time in foster care as a child, is the father of the two youngest boys.
Kahlil Tatum, shown in photos provided by the Prince George’s County Police Department, became a trusted figure in Shamika Young’s family. Young’s daughter, Relisha Rudd, called him “Goddaddy. (Photo by Prince George's County Police Department/Associated Press)
The lives of the four children quickly echoed their mother’s own chaotic childhood. Three times, social workers investigated Young for neglect and abuse, including reports of injuries to Relisha and one of her brothers, as well as allegations that the children were living in squalor with not enough to eat. Each time, the charges were dropped — proof, Young says, that the allegations had no merit and that she was doing the best she could for her children.
Just like their mom, Relisha and her brothers moved from apartment to apartment before they wound up living in a shelter for homeless families at the old D.C. General Hospital. And it was there that Kahlil Tatum, 51, became such a trusted figure among Relisha’s relatives that the little girl called him “Goddaddy.”
By the time police began searching for Relisha on March 19, Young hadn’t seen her daughter for three weeks. Police said Young had repeatedly assured authorities that Relisha was safe with “Dr. Tatum,” who was, she told them, treating the child for an illness. Young disputes that, insisting she told police, “She’s with my mother at my sister’s house. They asked for the address. They came back and said she’s not there.”
The next day, on March 20, Tatum was charged with killing his wife, Andrea, who’d been found with a gunshot wound to the head on a Maryland motel bed.
Harmony Richardson, 8, left, and Tenika Fontanelle join in a prayer during a candlelight vigil for Relisha along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast Washington on March 31. (Photo by Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)
At a candlelight vigil on March 22, Relisha’s relatives began blaming each other for the 8-year-old’s disappearance as soon as they finished begging the public for help finding her. Outside the homeless shelter that night, they pointed fingers, yelling about who had Relisha last and who had allowed her to go with Tatum. He was found nine days later in a D.C. park with a bullet through his head, dead from an apparent suicide.
Young and Wheeler insist Relisha was in the care of Melissa Young, who had re-entered her children’s lives after their years in foster care. Melissa was the one who’d handed Relisha over to Tatum, Shamika says, who is once again estranged from her mother.
The Relisha Rudd case
March 1, 2014
Last day Relisha is seen aliveD.C. police chief Cathy Lanier said there is no confirmed sightings of Tatum and Relisha together after March 1, and no sightings of Relisha at all after that date.
The investigation beginsD.C. police launch a missing-person investigation. At 9:39 p.m., an officer calls Tatum’s cell, but it goes straight to voice mail and is never again reactivated.
Police find missing truck, charge TatumPolice learn Tatum might be driving a maroon 2007 Chevrolet Trail Blazer with a Washington Redskins emblem on the back window. They say the vehicle was seen parked outside Room 132 of the Red Roof Inn. Police went inside and found Andrea Tatum, 51, lying face down on a bed and shot once in the head. Tatum is charged in a warrant with murder in connection with the killing.
A reward for informationThe FBI releases video of Tatum and Relisha in the Holiday Inn in Northeast taken on Feb. 26. They post a $25,000 reward for the return of Relisha and police in Prince George’s post a separate $25,000 reward for information leading to Tatum’s arrest in the killing.
Police: Body found in park is TatumA body found during a search for missing Relisha Rudd in a D.C. park is positively identified as Kahlil Tatum.
“If it was a mistake sending our daughter with Melissa, we accept that mistake,” Wheeler says. “Any parent would send their kids with their grandmother. We didn’t send her with Tatum.”
But Melissa Young, 45, denies she played any role in Relisha’s disappearance. “If law enforcement thought I had something to do with it, I wouldn’t be still walking this street,” Melissa says. “I don’t know how he came about getting her . . . that last time.”
Now Shamika Young is living with the consequences: a daughter still missing and three sons in the foster-care system, an experience that scarred her own childhood.
“At the end of the day, my life is already ruined,” says Young, who is reliving “the [expletive] I went through as a child. . . . That’s painful. That’s very painful.”
The cycle she’s describing is very real, says Rahkel Bouchet, supervising attorney with the child welfare clinic at Howard University School of Law.
Children who are removed from their homes and grow up in ever-shifting foster-care arrangements often lack the skills to parent effectively, Bouchet says. They are far more likely to repeat the neglect and abuse they experienced as kids.
“I have clients who don’t fully understand they have the responsibility for meeting the needs of their own children,” Bouchet says.
Young defends the way she and Wheeler have cared for their children. Young often went without food so her children could eat, she says, and didn’t spank them “because of what went wrong with me as a little girl.”
The couple have been taking parenting classes, submitting to drug tests and going to therapy as they try to regain custody of their children. In their two-bedroom apartment, which Young and Wheeler pay for with disability checks, they have a room decorated for the boys and a pantry stocked with the kids’ favorite snacks.
The apartment is filled with photos of the children, with an entire wall dedicated to Relisha. And, sitting on an end table, next to framed school portraits, sits a gift from her boys: a pale pink teddy bear holding Young’s photo.
Tucked between the bear’s fuzzy arms, there’s a lacy heart that says “#1 Mom.”
Academy recruits with the D.C. police form a search party to look for Relisha Rudd at the Kenilworth-Parkside Recreation Center in Washington on March 31. Relisha, then 8 years old, was last seen alive March 1 in the care of Kahlil Tatum, a janitor at the homeless shelter where she lived. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
‘It’s a good report?’
Nine months after Relisha’s brothers were placed in foster care, Young and Wheeler arrive at D.C. Superior Court on a December Monday for their latest hearing, eager to learn if they would be reunited with their sons.
They’ve been spending time with their kids a few hours once a week under the supervision of a social worker. At the very least, they were hoping to have the children home for Christmas so they could watch them unwrap the presents they ordered from Wal-Mart. Three bikes — orange, blue and green — one for each boy.
“We’ve been going to our classes, our therapy sessions,” Wheeler says. “Everything has been on track, so I’m expecting good news.”
Wearing a bright pink blouse with floral leggings, an outfit she’d carefully selected, Young comes down a court hallway with her face buried in a report. The stack of papers outline their progress toward regaining custody — the city’s aim for troubled families whenever possible. Splitting families up for long periods of time or indefinitely is used only as a last resort because of the trauma it inflicts on children. Reunification is the goal, the report says.
“It’s good,” Young tells Wheeler.
“It’s a good report?” Wheeler asks to be sure. His palms are sweaty because he’s so anxious.
They walk outside to smoke cigarettes to calm their nerves. Young chuckles at one section of the report: The kids dropped crayons down the heating vent of their foster mother’s home and it smelled like crayon for days.
“I can believe it,” Wheeler says with a smile. “They used to do that at our old apartment.”
Finally, they slip into room JM-16 with their attorneys. An hour later, Young emerges. At least a minute passes before she can say a word.
“I’m done,” she whispers as she marches out of the courthouse. She zips up her jacket and pulls the coat’s hood over her head. She throws the report on the ground. Shivering, she lights a cigarette.
“Nothing!” she hollers. “No unsupervised visits. The report was good. I don’t understand why.” Tears pool in her eyes. She takes a puff of her cigarette and points it at the report lying on the ground.
“I’m not going to have Christmas with my kids,” Young says. “You see when I go back to court?”
Scribbled on the back page in blue ink: “March 15, 2015.” Just a few days before the first anniversary of the city’s frantic search for Relisha.