Tommy Wells

The public story of the disappearance of eight-year-old Relisha Rudd began unfolding early on March 20 with Amber Alerts, broadcast on freeway signs and cellphones.

Police believed the eight-year-old was with Kahlil Tatum, a 51-year-old janitor at the DC General family shelter where she had been staying with her mother, her brothers and her step-father.

Fears for the child rose higher after the search led officers to a Maryland motel where they found one of Tatum’s cars and the dead body of his wife. The days wore on.

Then, on March 31 the remains of Tatum himself were located in Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens. Police say he died of an apparent suicide. Yet even after an extensive search of the park, police found no sign of Relisha.

The story with its twists and turns, false leads and dead ends has haunted the city.

Some debate where to lay the blame. Is it the child’s mother, who put Relisha in the care of Tatum, known for offering gifts and twenty dollar bills to shelter children? Is it the safety net of individuals who might have noticed Relisha’s mounting school absences sooner? Payne Elementary wrote a referral to the DC Child and Family Services Agency after Relisha missed 30 days of school. Many were excused by Relisha’s mother for illness, citing a “Dr. Tatum.”

In the end, it took more than two weeks for a social worker to check on Relisha’s whereabouts at DC General, the Washington Post reported. When that social worker discovered that Tatum was a janitor, and Relisha’s mother could not account for her daughter’s whereabouts, the police were informed.

DC Police began a missing person investigation that night, but at that point, was it too late?

On Twitter, most concerned users ask: Where is the little girl who friends say liked playing with dolls and wanted to be a model?

The story serves as a terrible reminder of the difficulties and dangers that many homeless children face, according to Jamila Larson, co-founder and executive director of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, a volunteer program that brings toys and activities to the District’s family shelters.

She has her own theory about what happened to Relisha. She believes the child may have become a victim of human trafficking. She says homeless and runaway children are at very high risk of being targeted by sex trafficking rings.

Research bears her out. A study on youth homelessness and human trafficking done by a New York City youth and young adult shelter and Fordham University found that nearly 15 percent of homeless and sheltered youth surveyed suffered some kind of trafficking victimization. And even those who are not victimized that way experience other dangers.

According to data collected by the National Center on Family Homelessness, by age twelve, 83 percent of homeless children had been exposed to at least one serious violent event.

Local family shelters need more services directed to children to “make sure kids don’t fall through the cracks under their own roof,” Larson said.

In late March, WUSA9 reported police were checking surveillance video at Union Station to see if someone might have put Relisha on a train.

Amtrak assisted local law enforcement by providing video and reservation records. That search came up negative, an Amtrak representative said in an email.

Larson said she hopes the case of Relisha’s disappearance brings about changes in the way DC shelters approach serving children. She wants to see more services and staff that specifically address the needs of children at DC General.”Children in homeless families need a nurturing environment to keep that trauma from festering,” Larson said. “We need to invest in families in shelters so that they don’t become re-traumatized by the shelter environment.”

A man officials say could be connected to the disappearance of 8 year-old Relisha Rudd has been identified and is cooperating with the Metropolitan Police Department in their investigation. The name of the man, who is seen in a video released by DC police April 4, has not been revealed.