It’s been about 10 months since anyone has seen 8-year-old Relisha Rudd. Authorities can’t even say if the little girl, who was living in a homeless shelter at D.C. General at the time of her disappearance, is alive or dead.
Relisha was last seen on March 1 with Kahlil Tatum, the janitor at D.C. General, the former hospital near RFK Stadium that now operates as a homeless shelter, where she lived with her family. Tatum had the girl’s mother’s permission to take her home and care for her, and both Tatum and Relisha’s mom had lied to her school about her increasingly frequent absences; Tatum posed as a doctor to write notes excusing them. By March 19, police were looking for Relisha. On March 20, Tatum’s wife was found dead in a hotel room in Oxon Hill. On March 31, Tatum was found dead by an apparent suicide in Kenilworth Park.
Police say they have evidence suggesting Tatum purchased large trash bags on March 2 and was spotted in the 700-acre Kenilworth Park soon after. But searches of the sprawling park never turned up Relisha’s body, and the search still quietly continues.
Plenty of people blamed Relisha’s mother: Why did she allow the janitor to care for her daughter? Why did she lie about her school absences? And why did it take so long for her daughter to be reported missing? But Relisha’s family had been living in D.C. General for 18 months—the District’s Child and Family Services Agency had also been monitoring the family for years—and her disappearance points to wider systemic problems. Why didn’t anyone notice that Relisha hadn’t slept in her shelter bed for weeks? And should Relisha’s school have been more suspicious sooner about her absences?
Months later, the District released an internal review of the incident that declared it couldn’t have done anything to prevent the girl’s disappearance. Yes, the report said, there are places where oversight can be improved, but the many agencies involved with Relisha and her family followed the necessary protocol leading up to and following the girl’s disappearance. That struck many advocates for improving services as disingenuous, at best. Not long after that, the city moved to close D.C. General permanently, replacing it with six smaller shelters—which may have been a tacit admission that things weren’t as rosy as the report said.
Meanwhile, no one knows what happened to Relisha. At one point during the investigation, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier said it was “heart-wrenchingly frustrating” how few answers had turned up. That was months ago, and the sentiment still couldn’t be more true; for Relisha, her family, and all of D.C., the disappearance of this little girl still wrenches the heart.