WAMU’s new podcast series, Through the Cracks, has just completed its first season, which focused on the disappearance of eight-year-old Relisha Rudd from the DC General family shelter in 2014. The podcast presents a compelling picture of how multiple generations of untreated trauma, combined with an inadequate social safety net, makes such tragedies possible. However, the podcast falls short in its effort to document the systemic failures leading to Relisha’s disappearance. Specifically, it draws an incomplete picture of the failure of DC’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) to keep Relisha safe despite an open case on the family.
In Through the Cracks, host Jonquelyn Hill retells the story of Relisha Rudd’s 2014 disappearance, which many readers will remember well. By the time Relisha was declared missing, it had been 18 days since she was last seen at Payne Elementary School or the DC General shelter where her family resided, according to the podcast. After Relisha had accumulated 14 absences from school, Payne’s social worker, LaBoné Workman, suspected anything was wrong with the excuse notes Relisha’s mother had been submitting, which were signed by a Doctor Tatum. When Workman arrived at the shelter to investigate, he quickly learned that no such Dr. Tatum existed. Instead there was a janitor with the same name. And not just an ordinary janitor. Investigators learned that Tatum had a criminal record that should have prevented his being hired to work at the shelter. Moreover, he had befriended many children and teens and given them gifts. Some parents had turned down the gifts and terminated the relationships, but not so Relisha’s mother, Shameka Young. The social worker’s visit touched off a citywide hunt for Relisha. On March 20, Kahlil Tatum’s wife was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head. On April 1, Kahlil Tatum was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Despite extensive searching by police and volunteers, Relisha Rudd has never been found.
Through the Cracks explains how multiple systems set up to protect Relisha failed. Her mother and stepfather themselves survived instability, abuse, and trauma, which left them with issues that impaired their ability to parent her. Tenant protections failed to prevent the eviction of this family from their home. An abandoned hospital that treated homeless families like prison inmates became the family’s home. A predator named Tatum was hired at this shelter despite his criminal record.
But when it comes to the agency tasked with responding to abuse and neglect in the District of Columbia, the podcast missed the mark. In the penultimate episode, Hill finally mentioned that Relisha’s family was known to CFSA when she disappeared. In fact, she reported that Relisha’s mother Shameka Young was reported three times to the child abuse hotline–in 2007, 2010, and 2013. Hill noted that in none of those cases did the agency elect to remove any of her children, and she devoted some time to discussing that fact. She spoke with a CFSA official, and with Judith Sandalow of the Children’s Law Center, about the policies surrounding the decision whether or not to remove a child. Based on these conversations, Hill finally concluded that “…. because Relisha wasn’t taken away, I can infer that social workers didn’t find enough evidence of abuse or neglect, or I can infer that they believed they could solve whatever the issues were by offering solutions like affordable child care or parenting classes. And if that’s the case, I’m not sure what kind of follow-up there would have been.”
However, the Washington Post‘s extensive coverage of the case has already eliminated the need for some inferences. The Post reported that the abuse or neglect complaints mentioned above were all “sustained” or “verified” by the agency and provided further details. In July 2007, social workers reported finding “inadequate food and supervision for Relisha and her newborn brother and that Relisha had an injury that could have been caused by abuse.” In April 2010, workers investigating a complaint that Shameka failed to bring her son for a follow-up medical appointment after surgery found a home full of cigarette butts and trash and small children being allowed to bathe themselves “without supervision.” In the investigation of the 2013 call, a social worker noted that one of the children had been thrown to the ground, cutting open his lip, and slapped in the face. Young was stated to be “verbally abusive on a regular basis and would leave [the children] alone often.” The Post also explained that these three were the only reports to be sustained by the agency, but others may have been received as well.
Hill and her team could also have consulted CFSA about their options when abuse or neglect is found to have occurred. When CFSA finds abuse or neglect, it can take one of three actions: remove the child or children if they are deemed in imminent danger, open a case for in-home services if the risks are high for future harm to the child, or refer the family to a community-based agency for help if the children are not deemed at high risk. In the case of the 2013 call about Relisha’s family, we know what they did. They opened a case for in-home services.
Several pieces of evidence attest to the existence of an open case on Relisha’s family. Unnamed “sources” told NBC News that “D.C. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) had an active case working when Relisha went missing, along with three prior cases dating back to 2007.” (A reporter can actually be heard reporting this story in the background of the podcast.) The same information was implied by CFSA Director Brenda Donald in a Letter to the Editor stating that “the fact that CFSA does not remove a child as a result of a substantiated abuse or neglect allegation does not mean we do not provide any services.” The City’s heavily redacted report on Relisha Rudd also makes clear to anyone who knows child welfare that her family had an open case.
The fact that a case was opened means that Hill reached some faulty conclusions. First, as explained above, the opening of a case means that the investigator did find abuse or neglect, contrary to Hill’s suggesting that was only a possibility. Second and more important, if Hill was indeed “not sure what kind of follow-up there would have been,” she only had to ask CFSA or the Children’s Law Center. A case for in-home services means there would be follow-up, including twice-monthly visits to make sure the children were all right and to assess the family’s compliance with their case plan. If things were not going well, the social worker had the option of removing the children or seeking court involvement to hold the parents accountable for changing their ways within a given period of time to avoid removal of the children.
Perhaps Hill and her co-producers fell victim to the common misconception that the primary function of child welfare agencies is removing children and placing them in foster care. In fact, as of December 31, 2014, CFSA was serving 2,812 D.C. children, of whom 62 percent were being served in their homes and only 38 percent in foster care. “In-home services” were the main vehicle for serving abused and neglected children in the District of Columbia. (The in-home percentage was slightly higher as of December 2020–about 65 percent). Then, as now, families with in-home services had a case plan outlining the steps they had to take (like receiving therapy or drug treatment) before the case could be closed. The social worker assigned to their case would have been required to visit them at least twice per month to monitor compliance with the case plan and to check on the safety of the children. That social worker would have been required to see each child on each of these visits.
The timeline provided by Through the Cracks indicates that Relisha was last seen on March 1, 2014 at a Days Inn with Tatum on video. (Police told the Post that she had been with him since February 26.) The school social worker’s visit to the shelter on March 19 touched off the citywide search for Relisha. If they had realized the significance of the in-home case, the producers of Through the Cracks might have wondered if the CFSA social worker visited the family late in February or between March 1 and March 18. If so, they might have wanted to know whether the social worker simply accepted Shameka’s claim that Relisha was safe in another location without seeing her, and if the social worker truthfully indicated that fact in her notes. Moreover, the Washington Post reported that Payne Elementary called the CFSA hotline on March 13, after she accumulated ten unexcused absences. A “person familiar with the case” told the Post that CFSA did not treat this as a high-priority call because Relisha’s brothers continued to show up at school. But this report should have been forwarded to the family’s in-home social worker and at least triggered a call or visit to the family by that worker. If they had read the article, the podcast producers should have wondered about that too.
Of course, it is clear that CFSA would not have answered any of these questions. NBC and the Washington Post cited leaked information from unnamed sources for their reports. CFSA refused to comment on Relisha’s case because it would violate the family’s privacy–the same response they give when asked about any individual case. But at least the podcast staff could have done a bit of digging, searching for someone who has left the agency since 2014 and might be willing to talk. They might have asked their police sources if the social worker had been interviewed. In any case, they could have discussed CFSA’s confidentiality protections and whether they truly protect families or serve primarily to serve the agency. And they could have at least raised the issue of CFSA’s how in-home services are supposed to work to address abuse and neglect while keeping children safe at home, and what changes might need to me made to make them more effective.
Why is it important to know how Relisha was able to fall through the cracks of CFSA? It matters because CFSA was Relisha’s last safety net. After tenant protections, the shelter, and the school failed, the only system left to save Relisha was CFSA. And CFSA continues leaving children in homes where they have been abused or neglected under the assumption that they will be safe with monitoring and services. If a child could disappear from a family that had such a case, then there was obviously a need for change. And indeed, the District recognized this. In the heavily redacted report on Relisha’s case that was released by the District government, many of the findings and recommendations concern CFSA (even though that must often be inferred in the findings, where the agency’s name is often redacted), suggesting the agency should have done a better job of recognizing the family’s problems, sharing information with other involved agencies, and perhaps intervening more intensively by seeking court involvement or removing the children. Available information incidentally casts doubt on whether the recommended changes were actually made or retained, but that is beyond the scope of this post.
One hopes the failure to investigate CFSA’s failure in Relisha’s case was not a reflection of ideology on the part of Hill or the Through the Cracks team in general. In the podcast, Hill states that “Black mothers are so often gleefully blamed when things go wrong for their children.” It may not be an accident that she never specifies the details of the three founded reports against Shameka Young. Hill and her team did not mention the details of these findings, such as Shameka cursing her kids, splitting her son’s lip, and letting small children bathe alone. Were these details excluded so as not to make Shameka look bad? Did did the podcast team fear that saying CFSA should have assumed a more interventionist posture would go against the current child welfare climate and the growing movement urging child welfare agencies to stop policing black families, regardless of whether their children need protection?
The unifying theme of Through the Cracks‘ first season is the question of whether Relisha’s disappearance could have been prevented. The producers point out the irony of the District’s statement that the abuse could not have been prevented, while recommending a long list of changes to the policies and practices of all the agencies that interacted with the family. They rightly question the logic of exonerating DC agencies while telling them to change their practices. It is unfortunate that they missed the opportunity to explore the ways in the city’s child welfare agency failed to fulfill its duty to protect Relisha.
 According to the Washington Post, on March 13, Relisha had 10 absences and the school called CFSA. On March 19, Relisha had (by deduction) 14 absences and the school social worker went to the shelter.
 On page 4, “child welfare” was obviously redacted from Finding #1 and on page 5, “CFSA” is obviously whited out in Finding #2.