Are we doing enough to protect homeless children?

The search for 8-year-old Relisha Rudd has drawn attention to the nation’s failure to protect its most vulnerable

Explore more of Al Jazeera America's in-depth coverage of homelessness across the country, and read our report on the often isolated and forgotten homeless youth in suburban and rural America.

Relisha Tenau Rudd's impoverished upbringing didn't keep her from dreaming.

The 8-year-old, who until recently lived with her mother in a Washington, D.C., homeless shelter, thrived on art projects and dreamed of becoming a model or a cheerleader, according to those who knew her.

"She was very trusting, very loving," Danielle Rothman, who manages an educational play area at the shelter where Relisha lived, told America Tonight. "She was the first kid, who if she was outside when we arrive, runs up to you and says, 'It's play time,' and throws her arms around you."

But the instability that came with her meager background also put her at risk. Last month, Relisha went missing in the company of Kahlil Malik Tatum, 51, an employee at the homeless shelter and a man whom the D.C. police believe killed his wife, and knows where Relisha is.

Relisha's disappearance has stoked a multi-state search with a $70,000 reward for her return, and has raised important questions about whether the nation is doing enough to protect some of its most vulnerable: homeless children.

Red Flags

Relisha Rudd
FBI handout

Nine days into the search for Relisha, a slew of what should have been warnings signs for the guardians, social workers, educators and shelter employees who were supposed to safeguard her are being uncovered.

Relisha's struggles began early in her life. City records documenting social worker visits to her family household beginning in 2007, when she was just 1 or 2, point to a difficult past: inadequate food, physical abuse and medical neglect. But she was never removed from the home of her guardians, according to records obtained by The Washington Post.

In 2013, Relisha, her mother, Shamika Young, 27, and three younger brothers moved into the homeless shelter at the old D.C. General Hospital, where social workers found evidence last November that the children were left unsupervised.

The shelter is also where Tatum – who had been arrested and prosecuted multiple times since the early 1980s, including for larceny charges – worked as a janitor.

Shelter residents told The Post that Tatum drove a burgundy SUV, often wore Polo designer clothing and had a penchant for giving shelter children gifts, ranging from small gestures like quarters for the gumball machine, to a $20 bill for an 11-year-old shelter resident and a water tank for her pet turtle.

Relisha's mother and other members of her family trusted Tatum, allowing him to take her shopping and swimming.

“He always brought her back when he was supposed to,” said Relisha’s aunt, Ashley Young.

On Feb. 26, Relisha's mother asked Tatum to take Relisha home with him, according to the D.C. police.

Surveillance footage shows Relisha and Tatum walking together later that day through the hallway of a Holiday Inn Express and entering a room. Those are the last known images of Relisha.

Giving children gifts and spending time alone with them violates shelter rules and is grounds for firing, but shelter officials said they did not know Tatum had been spending time with Relisha.

"That's clearly written in our guidelines. That's front and center in our training. Everybody knows you don't go home with a kid, not even staff who have been here for years," Jamila Larson, who co-founded the Homeless Children's Playtime Project that Relisha participated in, told America Tonight.

It was only after Relisha accrued 10 unexcused absences at Payne Elementary School in Southeast D.C. that anyone notified authorities.

On March 13, the school alerted the D.C. Child and Family Service Agency. It would take six days before a social worker reached out to Tatum and visited the shelter, setting off an investigation that led to the discovery of the body of Tatum's wife, Andrea Tatum, in a motel room in Oxon Hill last week, and had D.C. police searching a Northeast D.C. park earlier today.

More vulnerable

Kahlil Malik Tatum
FBI handout

"It's been surreal and awful and heartbreaking," said Rothman, who manages the shelter play area. "Children are living here and they need to be kept safe. It's unspeakable to me that there is someone who families trusted with their children safety could do something like that."

Understanding how homeless children are more vulnerable to predators is easier to understand, advocates point out.

According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, a Washington think tank focused on low-income populations, the number of families staying in D.C. shelters increased from more than 400 to more than 700 in the last year. And in shelters like the one where Relisha stayed, families are often crowded into small rooms.

"Imagine if you and your family of five were packed into a room like rats for 18 months, and then someone offered to help relieve that burden and help you take care of your kids from time to time?" Larson explained. "I think it’s [that] there are a lot of people who prey on vulnerable people and not everyone has the discretion to be able to tell who is sincere and who is safe and who is preying on their children.”

Advocates say the surge in homelessness in Washington isn't just putting pressure on homeless families, but is also pushing the city to cut corners.

D.C. law is more progressive than some cities, requiring the city to provide housing for homeless people during the extreme cold. In January, the city began converting recreation centers into shelters, and some of those who turn to the city for support say the makeshift cots and portable walls don't give enough protection or privacy for families with kids.

"When I saw those partitions, I was like, 'Is this where we're going to be at?' I didn't know what I was in store for," said Jenique Fultz, who had been staying in a makeshift homeless shelter at a recreation center with her newborn baby. "And I'm looking around there's no lock no key? My first thought was that someone can come in here and bother us."

When asked, Fultz said her greatest fear was that someone would try to cause her or her child harm at the shelter.

Seventy-nine homeless families are currently suing the city over the makeshift conditions, and on Monday, a D.C. Superior Court Judge ordered the city to immediately provide more private rooms for families as the class-action lawsuit plays out.

When America Tonight spoke to Fultz, she and her baby had a city-paid room at a Holiday Inn Express. “I’m safe, [my baby’s] comfortable, I don’t have to worry as much,” she said about the new arrangements.

But for another little one, the worry only deepens. It was in the hallway of this very same hotel where Relisha was seen on surveillance footage more than one month ago.

Increasingly grim

Twenty-seven days after her last confirmed sighting on March 1, the search is becoming increasingly grim.

Teams of police officers scoured Washington D.C.'s Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens on Thursday, after investigators discovered Tatum spent time there on March 2.

Search warrants obtained by America Tonight show police have been looking for clues in many places, including Tatum's work locker and his house. Detectives recovered children's clothing and shoes, and a photograph of Relisha, from his D.C. home. A detective assigned to a joint Metropolitan Police and FBI child pornography task force also took an iPad, some work supplies and papers from Tatum's locker at the shelter.

During a press conference Thursday, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said the search could be best described as a "recovery operation." Although authorities had not dismissed the possibility that Relisha is alive, she said, they could not ignore the possibility that she may have been killed.

But those who know Relisha are holding on to hope, making buttons to remind people of her cheerful face.

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