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At age 8, Relisha vanished. A decade later, she haunts a changed city.

The Washington Post
Ellie Silverman
March 3, 2024

The homeless shelter in Southeast Washington where 8-year-old Relisha Rudd lived was no place for a child. It had bedbugs, dirty showers and no playground.

It also had a janitor who in that crowded space filled with about 600 children befriended Relisha, then took her.

Nearly three weeks passed before authorities realized she was missing. But people were soon searching and learning how Relisha, a girl with soulful eyes, had slipped through a system that was supposed to keep her safe.

Ten years later, Relisha still has not been found.

In that time, much has changed: The second-grader’s disappearance forced a reckoning in how the city treats its poorest and most vulnerable residents. The megashelter, at the site of the former D.C. General Hospital, has been razed. The city now places unhoused families in much smaller shelters across several neighborhoods and aims to get them more quickly into homes.

Those who knew Relisha, or came to feel as if they did, are also not the same: Mourners are now advocates. A homeless child who lived alongside her became an educator. And school employees who looked out for her are more diligent.

In recent conversations, some said they believe Relisha is alive. Others said they long ago accepted that she must be dead. They described praying for her, thinking of her during low and high moments, and wondering whether what happened to Relisha could happen again to another child.

Mostly, though, a single overarching question haunts them: “Where’s Relisha?”

The school employees who knew her

By the time LaBoné Workman arrived at the D.C. General homeless shelter, Relisha had already missed nearly three weeks of school without a written excuse. Workman, a social worker at Relisha’s school, Payne Elementary, went to the shelter that day in March 2014 to meet the man he believed was her doctor. His name was “Dr. Tatum,” Workman told a case manager, not realizing that Kahlil Tatum was the shelter’s janitor.

“Dr. Tatum?” he recalled her asking.

“Yes,” he replied, before watching her pick up the phone.

“Tatum,” he overheard her say, “are you a doctor?”

Workman recalled feeling blood rush to his ears. In the moments that followed, he realized the man he had been speaking to by phone, the person Relisha’s mother had told him was treating her daughter for migraines and the reason he delayed notifying the city’s Child and Family Services Agency after Relisha hit 10 days of unexcused absences, was a janitor. Workman called 671-SAFE, the city hotline for reports of child abuse, and soon law enforcement officers arrived.

“It quickly got beyond me when the police became involved,” Workman recalled.

On March 19, the search for Relisha began, 18 days after she was last seen. Soon, an Amber Alert was issued and investigations were launched. Authorities released surveillance video from late February that showed Relisha walking in a hotel hallway with Tatum.

On March 20, the body of Tatum’s wife, Andrea, was found in a hotel room and Tatum was charged with her killing. On March 31, his body was found in a D.C. park with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

During those weeks in March, Relisha’s life started to come into focus for the public. But those who knew her through the schools she attended had seen a child struggling long before she disappeared.

Shannon Smith, Relisha’s cheerleading coach for two years at Ferebee-Hope Elementary School in Southeast Washington, remembers her as a girl who always sought hugs. During those embraces, she could smell that Relisha needed a bath. They soon developed a routine. Every morning, Smith took her to the nurse’s office to wash her and put lotion on her.

“I didn’t like the way she was a pretty little girl and never taken care of,” said Smith, now 58. “The other little girls had bows and looked all shiny coming to school.”

Whenever she bought her granddaughter clothes and toys, Smith said, she picked out something for Relisha. She also babysat Relisha and one of her brothers on occasional weekends.

“Relisha was like one of my children,” Smith said.

Smith searched for Relisha, along with so many others, but eventually stopped. Now, she prays. She prays that Relisha is alive and not in pain. She prays she will remember where she is from and make her way back. She prays Relisha can feel that there are people who still love her.

“God, bring her home,” Smith prays. “If she don’t have another home, bring her back to me somehow.”

Regina Pixley, who was the security guard at Ferebee-Hope Elementary, remembered how much Relisha loved being around Smith, whom she called Miss Shannon. She also recalled how Relisha was often left waiting to be picked up from school long after other children had gone home and how she would sometimes ask, “Can I stay?”

Pixley said Relisha’s disappearance changed how she viewed her job. It made her realize how critical it was for her to know each child. She later worked at Stoddert Elementary School in Northwest Washington and learned the names of hundreds of children. She knew which nanny, grandparent or parent picked each one up. She knew who was in after care and who walked home and in which direction.

“I felt like I did what I was supposed to do at the time,” Pixley, now 54, said of Relisha. “But sometimes I’m like, ‘Could I have done something different?’”

In the years after Relisha vanished, Pixley served as an advisory neighborhood commissioner and became a community organizer, launching her own group, Regina’s Place, to help families affected by gun violence.

“Children are supposed to grow up,” she said. “They’re not supposed to get killed, and they’re not supposed to disappear.”

Workman, now 58, is still a social worker at Payne Elementary in Southeast Washington. He said when children miss school now, he looks at each case more holistically.

“Why isn’t the kid in school?” he asks. “What can we do if it’s not anything more than she’s just not feeling well? Do you have access to a doctor? Can I help find you one?”

If a student has been absent three days in a row, Workman feels his body clench. That, he said, is part of Relisha’s legacy.

A family torn apart

Melissa Young still speaks about her granddaughter in the present tense, as if she is out there somewhere, alive.

When Young used to take Relisha shopping, the little girl would ask to put on lip gloss. Young wonders whether Relisha, who would be 18, now wears lipstick.

It’s one of the many questions that tug at her. She listed others on a recent afternoon: Is she getting ready to graduate high school? Who is her favorite gospel artist now? Does she still blurt out whatever she’s thinking? Is she a mom?

Young, 54, missed out on years of raising her own children after they ended up in foster care. She recalled the advice she gave her daughter Shamika Young after she gave birth to Relisha, followed by three boys: “Be the best mom that you can be because it’s easy for your children to go into foster care. But it’s hard … to get your children back home with you where they belong.”

After Relisha disappeared, the family’s struggles became a public spectacle. Relatives blamed one another for letting her go with Tatum. At one point, family members appeared on a talk show and screamed at one another. Details of the family’s difficult past also surfaced. Social workers had responded to at least three reports of abuse or neglect within the family.

Antonio Wheeler is the father of two of Relisha’s brothers and was living in D.C. General with the family when Relisha went missing. After Tatum took Relisha, her brothers were placed in foster care. Wheeler, now 37, said he has spent the last decade hoping to get his sons back.

Wheeler, who was also in foster care as a child, described his sons as traumatized by the experience of losing their sister. She helped them get dressed for school, brushed their hair and held their hands as they crossed the street. Wheeler said his older son shuts down when the conversation turns to her and his younger son tells him that he believes she is not dead.

“He said, ‘Dad, I feel in my heart my sister is still alive. They are not looking for her hard enough,’” Wheeler said.

Shamika Young, Relisha’s mother, did not respond to a request for an interview. Melissa Young said she and her daughter have worked on repairing their relationship in recent years. As Young tells it, she decided, “If I don’t forgive her again, I lost my child, just like I lost my granddaughter.”

Young said she and her daughter both attended classes at the Goodwill Excel Center, an adult charter high school, to earn their high school diplomas. Her daughter has graduated, and Young said she hopes to finish her classes this year.

When she graduates, she plans to tape a photo of Relisha to her cap.

The girl who could’ve been Relisha

No one had bothered to transform the hospital turned shelter into a home for the hundreds of children living there. Dirty showers led to rashes. Spiders bit people while they slept. Days passed with no heat.

But what Dakeisha “Mahogany” Epps remembers most is that kids like herself couldn’t laugh too loudly or run around the hallways.

“You don’t get to be a child there,” recalled Epps, now 25. “After six months of someone telling you to stop running, stop laughing, coming through the metal detectors, emptying your pockets, people telling your mom and dad what to do, how do you get your happiness back? How do you get your child instincts back?”

She was seven years older than Relisha and saw her whenever they ate meals. She noticed they were the only girls in their families. They both also desperately wanted out of the shelter.

Epps ran away to California. She didn’t know whether anyone was searching for her, but people who knew her said they looked to find her. Her mother made her own missing person posters.

Now, Epps reminds herself that if she had been less lucky, if volunteers hadn’t helped her find her way back home after about a month, she could have vanished, too.

“I know, very easily, I could be Relisha Rudd,” she said.

The circumstances surrounding Relisha’s disappearance were unique, but the vulnerabilities in the system that led to her being so easily taken — and then gone for so long before anyone started searching — remain too common.

Sisters-in-law Natalie and Derrica Wilson, founders of the Black and Missing Foundation, work with families of missing Black adults and children to amplify their cases. FBI statistics show that nearly 40 percent of children who are missing in the United States are Black, but the foundation has seen how those children often don’t get the same attention from the police or the media as their White counterparts. While Relisha’s case received a lot of focus in the D.C. region, they said it did not get as much national media coverage as it deserved.

“Relisha could be anywhere,” Derrica Wilson said. “She could be in California, she could be overseas, and again that media coverage is so vital because someone can walk by her and recognize her and it can result in her being recovered. We have seen miracles happen.”

D.C. police spokesman Tom Lynch said that Relisha’s case remains open and that officers and detectives will never give up the search for her.

Many members of the public have also not stopped following her case. Ten years after Relisha was last seen, there are still more than 600 members in a Facebook group called “We Are Relisha.”

Brenda Brown, a retired federal employee, launched the group despite never having met Relisha. Brown organized search parties, brought in a search-and-rescue dog from Maine, and opened her home to people who came from out of state to survey Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, where Tatum was seen after Relisha went missing. At least once a week, Brown still talks about Relisha with other women who were moved to action by her disappearance.

“Relisha is a part of us. She is a part of our soul,” said Brown, now 70, adding, “This is how much impact her disappearance has had on people, especially women, especially mothers.” She explained the significance of choosing the name “We are Relisha” for the Facebook page. “If we’re not going to be Relisha, then who will be Relisha? Who’s going to speak for Relisha? Who’s going to stand for Relisha?”

Epps, now a mother herself, launched a career in early-childhood education, a passion she said was strengthened by Relisha’s disappearance. She thinks of how Relisha didn’t get to be a child at the shelter and how she probably didn’t get to grow up to be an adult.

“I got to meet a man and fall in love and get pregnant and have a kid and move into a house and do all these things,” said Epps, who lives in Northern Virginia with her partner and 1-year-old son. “I got to come back to my life and make the most of it, but she didn’t get that opportunity.”

They watched her play, then vanish

Relisha said she wanted to talk. She was at an event with the Playtime Project — an organization that creates play spaces for homeless children in the city — and surrounded by toys, dolls and art supplies.

Danielle Rothman, the site manager for the Playtime Project at the D.C. General shelter, recalled walking Relisha and two other volunteers to a small storage area so they could have some privacy. Relisha told them she felt sad. At the time, Rothman said, nothing seemed unusual. They prepared a snack for her, gave her a pair of pajamas, talked some more, and by the time Relisha went back out to play, she seemed happy.

A week later, she was gone.

Rothman has spent a decade replaying that conversation and wondering whether she could have done more.

“What if I had asked her more questions? What if I had found the right question?” she said. “Would this have been different?”

Rothman joined search parties, plastered fliers with Relisha’s face around the city and skipped graduate school classes in hopes of finding her. Rothman, now 43 and a psychologist, thinks of Relisha as she parents her own children. If her eldest says he’s sad, she asks a lot of questions, in many different ways, to try to learn why.

“If they’re giving you a little bit like that,” she said, “there’s a good chance there’s something more going on.”

In those ways — small and large, private and public — what happened to Relisha still guides people.

Relisha’s disappearance exposed a number of issues at D.C. General and the lack of support for families experiencing homelessness, said Jamila Larson, the executive director and co-founder of the Playtime Project.

“The children at D.C. General were neglected many years before Relisha Rudd went missing,” she said. “She was so symbolic of all the gaps in the safety net and all the ways we collectively have failed vulnerable children in our community.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) successfully pushed to close the shelter, and her administration oversaw widespread changes to the city’s shelter system. “We as a city have said we don’t want to lose another child,” Bowser once said when talking about the changes.

Today, a child in Relisha’s situation might be placed in one of seven smaller shelters across the city. Those places have common spaces with couches, play areas, computers and books. Outside, they have playgrounds.

Larson has seen up close the strides the city has made when it comes to housing homeless children. Still, she fears that officials have not adequately invested in services to address what made a child like Relisha so vulnerable. Just because families are housed, she said, does not mean they are self-sufficient or in healthy situations.

Larson worries that what happened to Relisha could happen to another child in the city.

A decade later, Larson still keeps a painting by Relisha on her office wall. She also honors the little girl each time she welcomes a new staff member to the Playtime Project. She says to them: “Let me tell you about Relisha.”

Photo credit: Playtime Project / National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

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