Eaten up by the system

An interview with the journalist behind the new podcast “Through the Cracks” on how racism and the justice system impacted a 8-year-old D.C. Black girl’s disappearance in 2014. She’s never been found.

LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Through The Cracks is a longform podcast released this year that burrows into the 2014 disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, a Black girl from Washington, D.C. It was 18 days before authorities declared Relisha missing. She’s never been found. The Des caught up with the host and woman behind the show, Jonquilyn Hill, about how the justice system failed Relisha, the criminalization of Black motherhood and how the relationship between D.C. law enforcement and the District’s Black community impacted the search for the missing girl. (interview has been lightly edited for clarity)

How did Relisha’s story hook you?

So I lived in DC when Relisha was missing. I moved here in 2009 to go to Howard and I ended up staying after graduation. And I remember seeing her story all of the time. And then months had passed, years had passed, and I was on the red line train, and I saw her missing poster in the window of the Einstein Bagels in Union Station. And that just was a moment that it’s like, wow, this girl is still missing. And over time, I’ve always had an interest in true crime stories. And then the fact that Relisha is this little Black girl, and the fact that when things happen to us, we don’t get as much attention. Locally, I think people knew her name, but D.C. can be very transient. When people move here, they don’t necessarily know the story so I think that’s kind of what drew me to the story.

Jonquilyn Hill – Host of Through the Cracks

What was the most difficult part for you reporting, reporting this podcast?

Man, there were days where it was really emotionally draining. I remember the first day, I got an interview with Melissa, who’s Relisha’s grandmother, and Antonio, who’s her stepfather. And we didn’t know if we weren’t going to be able to talk with them again. So it was just like, it was kind of a marathon. I talked to Antonio first, had lunch, and then talked with Melissa. And I remember, just by the end of the day, just feeling so emotionally exhausted. And part of me is like, ok, if I feel that way, just hearing about it, what about the people who live it, and I think that’s valid. But I also realized that like, wow, this is stuff that impacts me, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I would never want to become numb to this. But there were times where I would just like, man, or it would be really hard because, it can be so sad that you wonder, do people have a chance?

“Are we even giving people a fair shot at making the lives for themselves that they want to? And I questioned that over and over again. And I think that was the hardest part. Just like generations upon generations of trauma. And how do you rebuild and bounce back from that? If that is all if that is all you’re given?”

There was a lot of doing the best with what you have in this story. And that wasn’t enough. But then why does a certain person have only what they have?

Exactly, exactly. I think that was the biggest part: people doing the best with what they have, but it can be hard when you have a lot less than other people do.

So there are a lot of systems that are going on and Relisha’s story, but how does specifically the justice system fit into her story and what happened?

I think that there are so many different ways. I think something that we didn’t get to flesh out in the podcast, because you have like this limited amount of time is the fact that her mother was very hesitant to talk to the police. And that’s something that she’s been critiqued about – the fact that she changed her story multiple times. But I think if this story happened now versus 2014, there would be a discussion about, well, why would she maybe be hesitant to talk to police? I think there’s also a conversation about Kahlil Tatum, the Janitor she was last seen in the care with. He had a criminal record. It was against the policy at the time to hire him because he had a record. But there’s a conversation to be had about people who have been formerly incarcerated having access to jobs. And it’s possible that maybe if that was a conversation being had, if there had been more openness about that. People would have interrogated Kahlil Tatum more.


“Like asking, well, what type of crime did he go to jail for? Just being able to check in and openly communicate, rather than it being something that he and people like him have to hide and that could have made all the difference. “

You mentioned Relisha’s mom being really hesitant to talk to the police. Do you think there was a fear for her of not only are they not going to find my daughter, but they could criminalize me because of her disappearance?

Oh, I think that 1,000% was part of it. I mean technically, she was not supposed to leave her kids in the care of Tatum. I remember hearing stories that they would meet off campus of the shelter to make the exchange to leave Relisha in his care. And so I think there was a fear of consequences regarding that. I think the way that we police Black motherhood is definitely a factor. So not only is it, “Oh, my daughter’s missing, but like I could get in trouble for my daughter missing.”

Even if it didn’t happen legally, there definitely has been social consequences for her. I think also we talk about the different institutions, and a lot of the time jail and prisons are the institutions we talk about, but we also have to look at foster care and Child Protective Services and things like that. Relisha’s mother grew up in the foster care system, she bounced around to a lot of facilities. She was in a mental health facility for a period of time as a child.


And so it wouldn’t surprise me if things like that were in the back of her head. Like, “Oh, they could take my kids away, and [that] is what could happen to them. Or, “I could go to jail.” We see Black mothers getting arrested for letting their kids play in a park unattended while they’re at work because they can’t afford child care. So something like this would definitely have consequences. And I don’t think it’s a stretch of the imagination to think that she was aware of those consequences. And that was top of mind for her.

How did the justice system in particular fail Relisha?

I feel like there are so many ways because the thing is every system failed Relisha. And I think we have to look at the fact that when it comes to Black people and Black families, in particular, almost every system is treated like the criminal justice system. Families are policed. I think whether it’s with Tatum and the aftermath, and both the lack of background checks, but also it not being an open discussion about who can work where. I think the way her family reacted was definitely in response to our criminal justice system and this fear of going to jail, this fear of being locked up.

There was a grand jury for Relisha’s mother, and they ended up not bringing charges. It was for obstruction of justice, they didn’t find the charges. But that in and of itself is pretty traumatic. And of course, we don’t know what was said in that it’s sealed because that’s the nature of a grand jury. But there are just all these points that you can see where even if it’s not the criminal justice system outright, it’s fear of the criminal justice system that we built. And I think that that’s something that wasn’t talked about the first time around in 2014.

But now we’re having all these conversations about the prison industrial complex and who gets arrested and community relationships with police. If there was a better relationship, maybe people would have come forward sooner saying “hey, something’s going on with this family.” But there’s this, this fear and I think it colors the way people interact with law enforcement and institutions at large.

How do you feel like Relisha slipping through the cracks as a young Black girl is representative of just in general, how young Black girls just are not protected and acknowledged at large in America?

It’s so indicative, I think everything from the fact that no one realized anything was wrong until it’s too late. To the fact that locally her story got a lot of attention, but nationally it’s not as well known as other stories.

One thing that I’ve said before is that when it comes to Black girls, they’re not given the same space to either make mistakes or be protected.

And there are all these gaps that exist. And it’s this thought that we’ve created these safety nets that catch people when there are these gaps. And I think Relisha’s story is indicative of the fact that doesn’t always happen. And it doesn’t always happen for Black Girls. Black girls aren’t often not given a safe place to land. And I think we have to really be honest with ourselves about that, if we want to change that.

When the justice system does acknowledge young Black girls it’s often to criminalize them. So expanded how the story reflects that larger fact of the over criminalization of young Black women as well?

It’s something that’s always top of mind. If we knew where Relisha is and she were just a regular teenager going to school in DC, what would her life look like? How would she be treated? Are we only kind to her because there’s sort of this hagiography around her, how would we be treating her if she were just a regular teenager, going to school, hanging out with friends, doing what teenagers do? And it’s something that’s always at the top of my mind, whether it’s the fact that Black girls are seen as older when they’re younger. And the fact that leads to not only criminalization, but over sexualization of young Black girls.

It means that Black girls are forced to grow up a lot faster in a lot of different ways because of how the world treats us. And I think that’s clear in Relisha’s story. And I think it’s also clear in her mother’s story. The fact that she came from such a difficult background, and maybe if you look different people will be more kind and more understanding. But because of the way society treats Black women because they tend to be over criminalized that’s not the case with her.

Journalists are infamous for hating nuance and ignoring nuance, but you don’t do that in this podcast, which I think is really powerful. So what are some of the biggest nuances that you really want listeners to come away with a greater understanding of?

When I think it’s a nuance, I think the biggest ones are of course her mother and also her grandmother, just like motherhood as a theme in this podcast in general. I think anyone with a mom can attest to the fact that it can be a relationship that can be both difficult and rewarding, and that no one knows how to do it. And a lot of the times our moms are playing it by ear and they’re human, but that the things that they do can have real consequences nonetheless. I also think of Kahlil Tatum and his wife in particular. One interview that I’m really proud of is that I got to speak to Alexis Kelly who is Andrea Kelly’s daughter. Andrea Kelly was Kahlil Tatum’s wife [who he allegedly murdered].

People had a lot to say about her as well. This thing of like, how could [she] not know? What talking with her daughter made me realize is that love can be really difficult, and you don’t always know the person that you love as well as you think you do. And that can have major consequences, but it’s also a reality. I think also is the nuance in how we deal with homelessness. It’s the thing of, OK well, do we treat homelessness once it’s here? Or do we try to prevent it in the first place? What is a two pronged approach to that look like? So I think that nuance was something that we always came back to. We were always saying, okay, but like, what isn’t being told? I think that’s part of the beauty of a long form podcast. You get the space to for the nuance versus when I’m not doing this, I’m working on an hour on a two hour long radio program, and it can go really quickly it’s live, but when it’s recorded, when it’s long form, when you have more space, you’re able to get things more nuanced.

God forbid, this was to happen, but do you see that the systems have not changed or the attitude of DC has not changed where something like Relisha’s case could happen again in 2021?

I feel like a lot of things have changed. But at the same time they haven’t. So homelessness has gone down? Yes. But the cost of living is still going up. If you look at the types of housing being built in DC, a good chunk of it is one or two bedroom places, it’s not places for families. Families need more space than that. And that’s not what’s being built in the city. I also think that something like this could happen, but it would look different. Because something not exactly like Relisha’s case but similar happened prior. There was the Banita Jacks’ case where a woman who was struggling with mental health issues, kills her children. It took months for it to be realized, and it was when a social worker was like, Oh, these kids haven’t been at school. And I think the pandemic makes that more difficult. It makes things like attendance harder. It makes it harder for people to catch on. And then I think, you know, hopefully, the pandemic will be winding down soon, there’s an eviction moratorium. Eventually, that’s going to end and that’s going to put a lot of families out. And we have to be honest with ourselves about all that.

When you look at the justice system, in relation to Relisha’s case, do you see that there is room for improvement? Or reform? Or do you just see that it’s a system that needs to be completely rebuilt?

You know, I don’t know. I think that’s something that I think about a lot. Not only in Relisha’s story, but in general. I feel like I’m in a place where I’m still doing a lot of reading, I’m still doing a lot of research. And I can only hope that, you know, people who are much smarter than me can come to a solution. Hopefully, with the help of the kind of storytelling that I do on Through the Cracks, that highlighting these stories will make not only policymakers, but regular people realize that something needs to happen. I don’t know what that something is.

““But something has got to change if we want to protect little Black girls like Relisha.”

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Founder of The Des and freelance criminal justice reporter based in Washington, D.C.