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image.imgRelisha Tenau Rudd’s impoverished upbringing didn’t keep her from dreaming.

The 8-year-old, who until recently lived with her mother in a Washington, D.C., homeless shelter, thrived on art projects and dreamed of becoming a model or a cheerleader, according to those who knew her.

“She was very trusting, very loving,” Danielle Rothman, who manages an educational play area at the shelter where Relisha lived, told America Tonight. “She was the first kid, who if she was outside when we arrive, runs up to you and says, ‘It’s play time,’ and throws her arms around you.”

But the instability that came with her meager background also put her at risk. Last month, Relisha went missing in the company of Kahlil Malik Tatum, 51, an employee at the homeless shelter and a man whom the D.C. police believe killed his wife, and knows where Relisha is.

Relisha’s disappearance has stoked a multi-state search with a $70,000 reward for her return, and has raised important questions about whether the nation is doing enough to protect some of its most vulnerable: homeless children.

Nine days into the search for Relisha, a slew of what should have been warnings signs for the guardians, social workers, educators and shelter employees who were supposed to safeguard her are being uncovered.

Relisha’s struggles began early in her life. City records documenting social worker visits to her family household beginning in 2007, when she was just 1 or 2, point to a difficult past: inadequate food, physical abuse and medical neglect. But she was never removed from the home of her guardians, according to records obtained by The Washington Post.

In 2013, Relisha, her mother, Shamika Young, 27, and three younger brothers moved into the homeless shelter at the old D.C. General Hospital, where social workers found evidence last November that the children were left unsupervised.

The shelter is also where Tatum – who had been arrested and prosecuted multiple times since the early 1980s, including for larceny charges – worked as a janitor.

Check out Al-Jazeera America for more on this story!

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