The mother of a missing 8-year-old girl says she believes her daughter is still alive even though police are now calling the search for Relisha Rudd a "recovery" mission.
"That's not a thought that I can have in my head right now," Shamika Young said. "The thought that's in my head is praying and staying strong and having faith that my daughter returns home safely and unharmed."
Relisha was officially reported missing March 19. An Amber Alert was issued the next day.
But police believe she had been missing for weeks longer. Police said she had been in the company of Kahlil Tatum, 51, who worked as a janitor at the homeless shelter where Relisha and her family stayed.
The last confirmed sighting of Relisha was March 1 at a D.C. motel. The next day, Tatum purchased a shovel, trash bags and lime.
Federal agents, police officers and fire department recruits descended on Kenilworth Park Thursday after receiving information that Tatum spent some time in the wooded 700-acre park after Relisha disappeared.
Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia local news, events and information
Police also said Relisha's mother knew she was with Tatum, but did not report the girl as missing. But Young told News4's Shomari Stone Thursday night that she did not leave her daughter with Tatum.
"I wasn’t under the impression she was missing. I thought she was at my sister’s house," Young said. "I didn't want to lose my other three kids. That's why I didn't call the police."
She said Relisha was in the care of her grandmother and aunt at the time of her disappearance.
"No, I don't feel responsible.... She was in the care of my mother and my sister; that's why I don't feel responsible," Young said.
The search for the little girl with big brown eyes has stretched as far south as Atlanta.
Police believe Tatum is armed; he is also wanted in the death of his wife, Andrea. Her body was found at an Oxon Hill Red Roof Inn last Thursday during the search for Relisha.
Young said she and her daughter, had a trusting friendship with Tatum.
"He didn't look like that type of person. He looked like a good person. The way he played with everybody's kids, the way he did his job when he needed to do his job...he didn't look like an intimidating person."
During a news conference Friday, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said Tatum had contact with other young girls at the shelter, but the nature of those interactions is not known at this time.
Relisha's grandmother and aunt called Young's allegations false.
"I cannot talk bad about my sister. I honestly don't have no room to talk bad about my sister, so it's not nothing really that I can say bad about her," said Young's sister, Ashley Young.
But both sisters want to see Relisha returned safely.
"Deep down inside, I strongly believe that she's alive," Ashley Young said. "I know my niece is a fighter."
Shamika added, "If my daughter is watching this right now, I would say I love you.... If you do return back unharmed, you will never, ever go with anybody else. You will always be by my side at all times."