12/31/2014 11:46 am ET Updated Mar 02, 2015

Relisha's Brothers, Part I: At Risk of Poverty

The tragedy is familiar to many by now. Eight-year-old Relisha Rudd disappeared in March from the DC General emergency family homeless shelter. Allegedly in the care of Khalil Tatum, a janitor at the shelter, Relisha hasn't been seen since before Tatum's body was discovered, a suicide by gunshot.

Reflecting community interest in Relisha's fate, local news media recently returned Relisha to the radar screen. Last week, the Washington Post explored the background of Relisha's mother, Shamika Young, and published a column by local pundit Petula Dvorak.

As Dvorak lamented, we do not know the "whole story." Indeed, the reports raise more questions than answers, drawing us deep into the thicket where poverty and child neglect are entangled.

At the time of Relisha's disappearance, she and her family were living in the shelter at the abandoned DC General Hospital, sharing a parking lot with the morgue and D.C. Jail. Appalling conditions at the shelter were first revealed by repeated 2010 reports, and predictably worsened by 2014 with a mushroomed population at the shelter and additional years of overuse. Relisha's disappearance brought renewed attention to the inadequacy of DC General as a solution to homelessness in the District.

Politicians, pundits, and the public went into high dudgeon mode, with the Mayor, Department of Human Services chief, and DC Council Human Services Committee Chair publicly agreeing that DC General is uninhabitable and calling for shuttering the shelter.

According to initial reports about Relisha's life at DC General, Tatum showed kindness to Relisha, and gave her a chance to spend time away from the shelter. Now, tragically, we know that the opportunity was not what it seemed to be. But let's cast off the glasses which give us all 20/20 hindsight, and instead try to put ourselves in Shamika Young's position.

If Relisha's mother had a decent place to live, would she have felt compelled to let Relisha have a respite elsewhere? If DC General were adequately heated and cooled, weren't ridden with bugs, provided edible food, and had operating elevators or a place to play, Relisha's mother might not have needed to let the child escape. If Relisha's mother had the support of real childcare, she mightn't have let the girl venture off with someone she barely knew.

This story is familiar. According to federal data, "inadequate housing" was one of the reasons approximately 11 percent of children nationally were placed in foster care in Fiscal Year 2012. Experts note that "the stress associated with being homeless or living doubled up can... compromise the ability of parents to meet their children's basic needs, leading to neglect. Being homeless or precariously housed can also exacerbate other problems, including mental health... disorders."

Now, as we consider what is best for Relisha's siblings, the relevant legal question is whether Young is a danger to the children. According to a recent Washington Post report, Young now lives in an apartment in Southeast DC. The choice likely is between keeping the children with strangers in foster care, or letting them return to their mother with intense monitoring and oversight by social workers and a judge. Now housed, if Young is otherwise properly-supported, will her children be in danger? They are certainly in danger of being poor, but that isn't a sufficient reason to keep children from their parents. Do the social worker and judge know something we don't that makes them think Young is a menace? Or are Young and her children simply victims of Monday-morning quarterbacking?

Maybe these boys would be in danger and should be kept from their mother. But it's more likely, as with most children in foster care, it's harming them more to be separated from their mother. For example, a 2008 MIT study found that among similarly-maltreated children, those simply left at home fare better with respect to employment, juvenile delinquency, and teen pregnancy than those put in foster care. Moreover, a November 2014 University of Chicago report shows that "addressing housing needs of homeless or precariously housed families may eliminate the risks to children's health and safety that inadequate housing can pose, thereby preventing out of home care placement." So maybe Young's new apartment helps provide assurance that the kids aren't in danger. Perhaps there is no need for the children to be subjected to prolonged trauma in foster care.

Then again, like the Post's Dvorak, none of us knows the "whole story." We are enveloped by unanswered questions because District law, like that in many states, makes child welfare hearings confidential. Can't observe the hearings, can't review the files. As a result, we are reduced to making guesses about children's welfare, the operation of the District's social workers, and the local judiciary's oversight effectiveness.

In a subsequent column, Relisha's Brothers, Part II: Endangered By Secrecy, I'll explain why subjecting Relisha's brothers to secret proceedings suppresses an important public debate and hurts the children themselves. And I'll make suggestions about what we'd be looking for if we were in the spectators' seats at a child welfare court hearing.