It has been more than two months since 8-year-old Relisha Rudd went missing from the Washington, D.C., shelter she had called home for two years. And hopes for finding her alive are fading.
In late March, Chief Cathy Lanier of the Metropolitan Police Department said the search had turned into a “recovery mission,” as law enforcement officials had slim hopes she would be found alive.
“While we have hopes of finding Relisha and bringing her back home, as each day goes by we grow more concerned, as each day goes by the likelihood of her being safe diminishes,” said Bob Lowery, vice president, Missing Children Division, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which was called in to help with the search. “It has been frustrating for everyone involved.”
As frustration mounts, so do the questions surrounding Relisha’s disappearance, including whether her homelessness made her more susceptible to danger.
Relisha and her brothers lived with their mother, Shamika Young at a homeless shelter on the grounds of the old D.C. General Hospital.
The second-grader deplored her transitional home, faking illness to avoid returning to the “trap house”— as she called it – relatives told The Washington Post.
But beyond bedbugs, other vermin, heat outages and the lack of a playground, there were more pressing concerns, other residents cited, problems that may have made it easier for Relisha to be taken by Kahlil Tatum, 51, a janitor at the shelter with whom the missing girl was last seen on March 1.
Security was extremely lax at the facility, residents told the Post. The 9:30 p.m. curfew is rarely enforced, broken surveillance cameras remain unfixed, visitors and residents are not always required to show their identification, people smoke marijuana out front with no consequence and staffing is inadequate. And some employees, particularly Tatum, flouted non-fraternization laws—several mothers said the janitor offered money to their young daughters in plain view of staff members.
Relisha’s grandmother Melissa Young even questioned why none of the shelter’s staff noticed Relisha was missing, according to the Post.
Several requests by phone and e-mail were made to Dora Taylor, spokeswoman of the D.C. Department of Human Services, to answer questions regarding safety measures at the D.C. General Hospital shelter and others. However, Taylor repeatedly failed to send promised responses.
“Did the shelter do a background check on this individual that worked there? That should have prevented him from being there around those vulnerable individuals,” said Natalie Wilson, co-founder, Black and Missing Foundation.
“These shelters and government agencies have to take a look at the [security] policies and procedures that are in place.”
According to police, Young said she placed her daughter into Tatum’s temporary custody on Feb. 26. During their time at the shelter, Young often allowed Tatum to take Relisha to sleepovers at his house and on trips to the movies and the mall, and he showered her with gifts, including a tablet. It was almost three weeks after Tatum took Relisha that she was finally reported missing.
“Why would Relisha’s mother give her child to this man?” Wilson asked, even as she answered, “We believe Relisha has been sold into sex trafficking based on all the information we’ve received.”
Wilson and other victim advocates say people who live in shelters are often targeted by sex predators and other criminals.
“The homeless are a vulnerable population and perpetrators of crimes look for those people…. Predators know where to go,” said Mai Fernandez, executive director, National Center for Victims of Crime.
An estimated 30 percent of shelter youth and 70 percent of street youth are victims of commercial sexual exploitation, according to a study cited in a National Center for Missing & Exploited Children fact sheet. Such children may engage or be coerced into prostitution for “survival sex” to meet daily needs for food, shelter, or drugs.
“They (the homeless) are an easy target,” Wilson said. “These people are stripped of their dignity, and they want the normal, basic necessities that people want. These predators present them with a situation that seems attractive and hard to resist.”
Tatum was one of those opportunistic predators, Wilson believes.
The day after Relisha was last seen with the custodian, police said he bought a box of black 42-gallon contractor trash bags.
On March 20, Tatum’s wife, Andrea Tatum, was found dead on a motel bed in Oxon Hill, facedown, with a gunshot in the head.
Eleven days later, Tatum’s body was recovered in Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, where he had been previously spotted in the days after Relisha’s abduction. He was shot dead, the victim of an apparent suicide.
Since Tatum’s death, the trail has grown somewhat cold. Bones recovered in Kenilworth Park May 4 turned out to be animal bones. But, the search will continue, volunteers say.
“We will not stop looking for Relisha until she’s found,” Bowery said. “She will not be forgotten.”