Who's to blame for the disappearance of Relisha Rudd?

101 days after Relisha went missing, her community continues to fight for change

Update 06/09/2014: Sunday marked 100 days since Relisha Rudd, a homeless 8-year-old from Washington, D.C, went missing. Her suspected kidnapper, a custodian at the shelter where Relisha lived, was found dead a month later, police believe by his own hand. Before that, police discovered the body of his wife in a hotel. But the fate of Relisha remains unknown.

The failure of Relisha’s shelter to notice warning signs, and the strange conduct of her mother and stepdad, captured national attention. And while the active search for Relisha is long over, many are still fighting to understand what truly happened, and what needs to be done to prevent another homeless child from falling prey.

Tonight, Lori Jane Gliha follows the original search route with leaders from the Black and Missing Foundation, which has expressed concerns that Relisha may have been trafficked. Gliha also reports on what’s changed at Relisha’s shelter, and what reforms community leaders think the system badly needs. Tune in to her report tonight at 9p.m.


Melissa Young clutched a collection of new pink and blue dresses.

“This one says, ‘Hope’,” she said, pointing at the glittery word written on the chest of the little girls’ garment. “With all this going on – I bought this outfit for Relisha because that’s what I walk around with: hope.”

Young doesn’t know if her granddaughter will ever have a chance to wear the new clothes. But she’s keeping them as a reminder of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, who disappeared March 1, 2014.

Last week, police called off a days-long search for Relisha in a 700-acre park on Washington, D.C.’s northeast side, where the girl’s suspected kidnapper, Kahlil Tatum, 52, spent a significant period of time shortly after she went missing.

Relisha's suspected kidnapper Kahlil Tatum was a janitor at the shelter where she lived. His wife was found dead, with a bullet to the head, and he was discovered soon after, in an apparent suicide.

In March, police found Tatum’s wife dead of a gunshot wound at a Maryland hotel. They also knew Tatum had recently purchased materials that could be used to dispose of a body. They were prepared for a recovery effort, rather than a rescue.

They never found Relisha. But they did discover Tatum, a custodian at the homeless shelter where Relisha lived, dead apparently by his own hand, leaving few clues about where the little girl could be.

“If they find her alive, I will be very, very excited. But if they find her deceased, I will take the news better if I am part of the search,” Young said, explaining that she has not been part of the search efforts thus far.

Young and her family have been the subject of much scrutiny since the search began, as has the D.C. General Family Shelter, the expansive former D.C. General Hospital where Relisha lived for almost two years. Questions remain about how one of its small residents was able to strike up such an intimate relationship with a staff member, and then go missing for weeks before anyone reported it.

‘Inappropriate relationships’

Relisha Rudd has been missing for six weeks.

Relisha’s family first encountered Tatum at the cafeteria of D.C. General Family Shelter, according to Young. She said Tatum helped Relisha and her three little brothers get food.

“One of the rules at D.C. General… in order for the child to get any meals… their parent must be present in the cafeteria,” Young explained. “My daughter [Shamika] would sleep. Mr. Tatum noticed the kids were never getting breakfast.”

Young said Tatum seemed friendly, but his relationship with Relisha and her family was against a shelter fraternization policy that had been in place since at least 2011. According to documents provided to America Tonight by D.C. Council Member Jim Graham, chairman of the Committee on Human Services, the shelter had a history of staff violating the policy. In the last year alone, four staff members were fired for this infraction.

The policy requires all employees to disclose “preexisting relationships with clients,” according to testimony supplied to Graham by Sue Marshall, the executive director of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, the contracted organization that runs the shelter.

Anybody could’ve picked up the phone and dialed 911 for me because I wasn’t at that time able to do it.

Melissa Young

Relisha Rudd's grandmother

In one case, a residential monitor was fired for failing to disclose a prior relationship with a current resident. The records show the staff member “made inappropriate advance which resident reported to Deputy Director.” Another case involved an administrator who was fired four days after a resident revealed the person kept inappropriate photographs of another resident on a cell phone.

The D.C. General Family Shelter is the capital's largest family shelter, housing hundreds of homeless families. The city is now developing plans for its closure.

The two other, separate cases involved a utility worker who had an “inappropriate relationship” with a resident and another staff member who was accused of fathering a former resident’s child.

“There should be people who should be disciplined in one way or another because they weren’t doing their job right,” said Graham, adding that the shelter’s curfew policy failed, too. Residential monitors are required to conduct curfew checks during weeknights to report “if families and children are present each night.”

“You know, there are situations where a child is somewhere else and it’s explained… so that needs to be taken into account as well,” said Graham. “But not day after day after day.”

D.C. General Family Shelter originally opened in 2009 as an emergency shelter for families in need of a temporary place to stay. Now, it is home to nearly 300 families and close to 600 children. The building is old, Graham said, adding that he’d like to see the shelter fixed or shut down.

Mayor Vincent Gray has called for the shelter's closure, and hopes to develop a plan to provide alternative emergency shelter for families in the city. But making up for the loss of those shelter beds with smaller facilities will likely face opposition from not-in-my-backyard types, he said.

“People will say, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea; just don’t put it in my neighborhood,’” Gray said on Wednesday.

Gray appointed Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services BB Otero and Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith to review the city programs connected to Relisha's case and recommend necessary improvements. But the mayor added that the responsibility for Relisha’s disappearance also lies with her own family.

“Remember, parents have a responsibility also, and the parents and the grandparents,” he said. “The parents – the mother and the grandmother certainly played a role in this.”

No one called 911

Relisha's grandmother Melissa Young said she didn't know Kahlil Tatum very well, but added: "I can easily pick up a danger sign, but when I was around him, I didn’t pick up any of that."

Relisha’s mother, Shamika Young, did not return America Tonight’s requests for comment, but Melissa Young defended herself and her relatives against of accusations they might have had some part in Relisha’s disappearance.

“I don’t care what people think at this moment about my family,” Relisha’s grandmother said. “Me or my daughter did not sell her baby. That’s how much we love her. I love my granddaughter so much.”

Young said Rudd had been permitted to spend time with Tatum, but she admitted no one in her family called police when he failed to return her to their custody or take her to school.

“When I found out she went missing, I couldn’t think,” Young said. “If my mind went blank and I like went into shock, I’m not thinking straight, so I wasn’t the only one in the family that was around when the notification got to us that Relisha was missing. Anybody could’ve picked up the phone and dialed 911 for me because I wasn’t at that time able to do it.”

According to police, Relisha was last seen on March 1, but a police search warrant indicates that her disappearance wasn’t reported until March 19, when a public school social worker contacted authorities about her repeated unexcused absences from school. According to police documents, the social worker reported that the child was being treated by a “Dr. Tatum,” that she had exchanged several calls with “Dr. Tatum” and had made arrangements to obtain documentation from Tatum about Relisha’s absences from school.

A T-shirt made by Relisha's grandmother.

Young said she supplied Tatum’s phone number to the social worker, and that it’s possible her formal writing might have been misleading. Sometimes her “M”s look like “D”s, she said. “Mr.” could have been mistaken for “Dr.” She told America Tonight she did not know Tatum was claiming to be a doctor.

“Just like my daughter didn’t know he was claiming to be a doctor,” she said.

Some of Relisha’s relatives said they spoke to the 8-year-old a few days before police got involved, and The Washington Post reported that a grand jury is considering charging Relisha’s mother with obstruction of justice. Suspicions simmered up again when it was found that the girl’s stepfather had posted pictures of stacks of cash on his Facebook page shortly before Rudd went missing.

The money came from legitimate sources, Young explained. “The father gets two checks from Social Security. My daughter [Shamika] gets one check from Social Security,” she said. “And we just got insurance from the car accident - the settlement, so you can see why he has so much money to put on Facebook.”

As police continue their search for clues – receiving about five tips a day from the public – Young is trying to make sure her little granddaughter isn’t forgotten. She recently had T-shirts made with Rudd’s picture on them.

“Thirteen dozen is what I paid for,” she said. “I will walk for hell and high water for baby girl.”

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