How a D.C. Social Worker Discovered 8-Year-Old Relisha Rudd Was Missing

© The Washington Post Payne Elementary School Principal Vielka Scott-Marcus tried to protect the school and its students - including many homeless children not unlike Relisha - from the tragedy that unfolded.
© The Washington Post Payne Elementary School Principal Vielka Scott-Marcus tried to protect the school and its students – including many homeless children not unlike Relisha – from the tragedy that unfolded.

The social worker from Payne Elementary School had a simple mission the day he drove to the D.C. homeless shelter where 8-year-old Relisha Rudd lived. He needed to get a doctor’s note.

By that Wednesday — March 19, 2014 — the second-grader had been absent from her Capitol Hill classroom for nearly three weeks without a written excuse. Relisha’s mother had said she was under the care of a doctor. LaBoné Workman, speaking publicly for the first time since Relisha went missing a year ago, said he talked to the man by phone, and then went to the family shelter to find him.

No one seemed to know who Workman was talking about when he arrived. Not the security guard at the door, not the confused case manager sitting in front of him. Workman started to get scared.

“I’m trying to find Dr. Tatum,” he said again, feeling his voice begin to crack. He tried a different question: “Do you have a Tatum?”

That was the moment he learned the “doctor” he’d been speaking with by phone was really a janitor at the shelter. “Everything kind of collapsed,” Workman said.

Workman’s inquiry into a child’s reported illness triggered a chain reaction. An Amber Alert went out for the second-grader, who was last seen alive March 1, 2014. Local and federal criminal investigations were launched.

Kahlil Tatum — Relisha’s supposed doctor — became the primary suspect in a frantic search for the missing girl that transfixed Washington and focused attention on the hundreds of homeless children living in a decrepit abandoned hospital in a hidden corner of the nation’s capital.

[D.C. family homeless shelter beset by dysfunction, decay]

Tatum, whom investigators believe shot and killed his wife in a Maryland motel room, was found dead of an apparent suicide in a Northeast Washington park where police were searching for Relisha. The girl is still missing a year later, and many fear she is dead.

In interviews with The Washington Post, Workman, a licensed social worker, and Payne Elementary’s principal, Vielka Scott-Marcus, recounted how they uncovered the deceit that had obscured Relisha’s disappearance, delaying any response for more than two weeks. They spoke of how they then tried to protect the school and its students — including many homeless children not unlike Relisha — from the tragedy that unfolded on highway billboards and the nightly television news, and for some, in their own lives.

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Source: The Washington Post | Michael Alison Chandler

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