On March 19, 2014, a school social worker in Washington, D.C. went to a homeless shelter to obtain a doctor’s note for a student. Eight-year-old Relisha Rudd had been absent from her classroom for almost three weeks without a written excuse. Her family had told school staff that Relisha was ill and under the care of a “Doctor Tatum.”
But when the social worker arrived at the shelter, he discovered that the supposed “doctor” was a janitor and the child was missing. This touched off a frantic hunt for the missing child, who was last seen on March 1.
Tatum, who police believe shot and killed his wife, was found dead of an apparent suicide in a park. Over a year later, the child has not been found and is feared dead. But despite the real fear that this young girl will never be found, records that could shed light on what happened here are being kept confidential.
Relisha’s case has been portrayed as a failure of the District’s crumbling family homeless shelter. To a secondary degree, the school has been held responsible for failing to report Relisha’s absence earlier to the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA). But the role of CFSA itself in this tragedy has received little attention.
Relisha’s family was known to CFSA. Not only had the family been the subject of several reports of abuse or neglect, but the most recent occurred only a few months before Relisha disappeared. The Washington Post reported that “a social worker noted a lack of supervision and abuse.” Unfortunately, the Post’s coverage did not clarify whether CFSA opened a case to provide services and supervision.
According to the Post, there were numerous indications that the family was in trouble. Relisha’s brothers had frequent behavior problems at school. School staff reported numerous warning signs, such as Relisha missing over 30 days of school and often showing up dirty, and Relisha and her brother waiting for a ride long after other children had left school.
If a case was open, then a social worker was required to see all the children at least twice a month. If there was no open case, then the question is: Why not?
The backdrop to this story is the dramatic decline in the District of Columbia’s foster care caseload: the number of children in care has decreased from 2,007 at the end of 2010 to 1,068 at the end of 2014. CFSA has been touting the success of its initiative to take fewer children into foster care. About 62 percent of its clients are now being served in-home.
That is good news indeed, as long as the children remaining with their families are receiving the monitoring and services that they need to be safe. However, Relisha’s story suggests that may not be the case.
Children who are remaining at home with their families are not receiving adequate services, according to the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP). CSSP monitors child welfare services for the court. Of the cases CSSP reviewed where a child
was receiving in-home services, “only 25 percent were rated as acceptable on ‘Implementing Supports and Services.'” Moreover, only 30- to 51 percent of the cases reviewed each month had documentation that safety was fully assessed at two or more visits as required by the court. These results give reason to wonder how many potential Relishas are currently out there.
Unfortunately, confidentiality laws prevent the release of information that would let us know how the system broke down in Relisha’s case. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) requires that states preserve the confidentiality of child abuse reports and records except in the case of a fatality or near fatality. A “near-fatality” is currently interpreted to be an act that puts the child in serious or critical condition.
But remarkably, a young child who has been missing for over a year does not qualify as a “near fatality.” And citing confidentiality, CFSA has refused to issue any details about its handling of Relisha’s case. Instead, the agency posted a report on its interactions with Relisha Rudd and her family with large sections redacted. Many of these omissions appear to imply that there were gaps in the services provided by agencies including CFSA.
We cannot rely on child welfare agencies to take the necessary measures to prevent tragedies like Relisha’s in the absence of external scrutiny. CAPTA should be changed to require states to release otherwise confidential information in cases where children have been missing for some time and there is substantial reason to believe they are dead.
The safety of children in the system must take precedence over the right of confidentiality. Less than a month ago, volunteer divers were again searching the Anacostia River for Relisha’s body. The citizens of the District should not have to depend on the finding of her body in order to learn whether the government tried to protect her while she was alive.
Marie K. Cohen is a former child welfare caseworker for Washington, D.C. She previously worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Welfare Information Network, the Center for Law and Social Policy and the University of Maryland Welfare Reform Academy.