Jonah Lewis: How we can help Relisha Rudd

Your smartphone buzzed last Thursday with Amber Alert messages, but you likely swiped past and ignored them.

You should know that you felt the hum of your phone because an eight-year-old girl named Relisha Rudd from Southeast D.C. was failed by the adults and social circumstances that surrounded her.

And you should know that her story deserves attention – and we can prevent more tragedies like hers if we decide to channel our knowledge and privilege into solutions.

These alerts aren’t commonplace – they’re pushed out to inform the public about missing children, an extremely rare occurrence in D.C.

The details of Relisha’s case are murky, but disturbing. What we do know is that Relisha first disappeared on Feb. 26. For reasons we can only begin to imagine, Relisha’s mother allowed an obsessive janitor from the homeless shelter at the old D.C. General Hospital to take Relisha home with him. Relisha’s mother spoke to her on the phone but has not seen her since.

The system failed Relisha. Despite her excessive absences after being taken by the janitor, Khalil Tatum, school officials at Payne Elementary School deferred to Relisha’s mother’s excuses as to her whereabouts for almost two weeks.

Despite the mystery surrounding the case, it has gotten limited coverage. Advocates, including the Washington Post’s Petula Dvorak, have called for national attention to bring Relisha home. As D.C. residents, we should heed this advice as well.

We must ask: Why did Relisha go to a school that seemed utterly indifferent to her safety? How was a man known for his undue and unwanted attention towards little girls allowed to work in the shelter housing some of the city’s most vulnerable youth? Even more importantly, why are hundreds of families housed in a run-down former hospital and not placed in better living conditions as they work to get back on their feet?

On our Foggy Bottom Campus, where sirens primarily emit from motorcades and not police on their way to a crime scene, it is easy to forget the harsh realities of crippling poverty, homelessness and urban decay that lay just beyond the marble halls of power downtown.

Even when GW students venture to other parts of the city, most of us are only visitors. We might spend an afternoon a week volunteering in Anacostia, but at the end of the day we will come back to our warm dorm rooms, far away from the hundreds of families warehoused in an abandoned hospital that is often without heat.

Most of us will never truly understand what it’s like to live in this type of urban poverty, where support systems are weak. But we don’t have to live in poverty to have empathy and feel compelled to listen and get involved. We shouldn’t allow our privilege to divorce us from the responsibility we have to this whole community.

It should outrage all of us that an innocent eight-year-old child, living in the same city we do, could have just fallen through the cracks.

D.C. public schools should not be places where students can be so utterly uncared for. We should not house children in decrepit shelters where staff can abuse them. The police force of our city should not be so incompetent as to fail to properly issue an Amber Alert to neighboring states for several hours after learning of a critically missing child.

This city, and Relisha Rudd, deserves better.

As D.C. undergoes major changes, and with a mayoral election just around the corner, we must concern ourselves with how this city is run. As a major institution, GW and its students, staff and faculty have a duty to use our collective strength to to demand city government be responsible to this entire city, not just those on this side of the Anacostia.

We say we’re the experts in governance. But if we are unable to see beyond Capitol Hill and use our energy to ensure the health and betterment of this community, we have misused our passion.

If we stay informed and demand answers, we can work to bring Relisha home. And let’s keep coming together to protect all of our underserved children from the chance of slipping through the weakening safety net.

Jonah Lewis, a sophomore majoring in sociology and political science, is a Hatchet columnist.

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