In a family photo taken last year, Tanicia Goodwin, left, sits with her son, Jamaal, 8, on the couch in a pink shirt next to his sister, Erica, 3, who is holding a white doll. The other two children in the photo are cousins.

They stare at Tanicia Goodwin's picture on the TV and in newspapers but don't recognize her.

This is a girl they helped raise, a member of their family.

But now she is the 25-year-old Salem woman who has been charged with slashing the throats of her two young children on Sunday night and dousing them and their apartment with lighter fluid before setting it ablaze.

"She looks like a mad woman," said Deborah Cox, 58, a cousin, in a telephone interview from her Dorchester home.

"She's not anybody I know. If you look at her eyes, they're empty. She looks totally delirious. Anybody who knows her knows that."

This is not the girl, woman and mother they knew.

"On her best day, she was a very loving mother, full of love for the children, and she came from a loving family," said Cox, a paraprofessional in the Boston public schools.

"I feel she had a support network she just chose not to turn to. ... We're all trying to wrap our heads around this and try to understand what demons possessed her to do this horrendous thing.

"None of us really know. None of us can figure it out. We just know we hurt for the babies first, we hurt for her, and we hurt for the families displaced because of the fire.

"We don't want to see her in jail, not because we dismiss the criminal stuff she did, but because she really is sick. This demonstrates how critically sick she is, and jail is not going to heal her."

Cox was at home yesterday with her brother, Wayne, 62, a retired accountant who drove up from Atlanta after hearing the tragic news.

Wayne Cox has been an anchor in the family.

He gained legal custody of Tanicia and her younger brother, Derek, after their mother died. At the time, Tanicia was 16 and pregnant with Jamaal, who is now 8 and a first-grader at Witchcraft Heights Elementary School.

As of yesterday, both Jamaal and his 3-year-old sister, Erica, were at Children's Hospital Boston, where they had been rushed Sunday night from their Salem Heights apartment building, fighting for their lives.

"We know what you know," Deborah Cox said yesterday afternoon. "Erica is stable, and Jamaal is very critical."

No hint of crisis

Although they knew Tanicia suffered from depression and had other mental health problems, the family said they had no indication anything was wrong.

"We just talked on the phone two weeks ago," said her brother, Derek, 17, who also came up yesterday from Georgia. "She seemed like everything was going good. ... She did ask if cousin Wayne would let her and her family move down to Georgia with us, and he had no problem with it."

Derek paused for a moment, like something just clicked in his head.

"I figure that was a sign right there," he said. "She was probably stressed out."

"Right now, I can't really explain my reaction," Derek said. "That's not my sister. I can't believe it. ... As a kid, she had some issues, some temper problems. But when she was living with me and my cousin in Boston, she was doing good. When we moved (to Atlanta), she went back to her old ways basically."

Tanicia Goodwin was born in Gloucester and lived in Lowell with her mother and brother. When her mother died in 2003, Wayne Cox took her in and gained custody of both siblings. He soon became guardian of her young son, Jamaal.

In 2009, the family split up. Wayne Cox had moved from Dorchester to Rhode Island, then moved again to Atlanta with Tanicia's brother and young son. Tanicia, then in her 20s with a new baby, Erica, moved to Salem.

"Tanicia decided she did not want to go (to Atlanta)," Cox said. "She had custody of Erica."

Tanicia went to Boston Probate Court and, in 2010, gained custody of Jamaal, who was then 6 and living with Wayne Cox in Atlanta, according to Cox.

"(Jamaal) didn't want to go back," Cox said. "It was hard on him. ... All he talked about was when was I coming to get him. ... That was the only stability he knew."

Cox said he told the court that Tanicia was diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia.

"The courts were made aware of this," he said. "Again, they decided to do what they did, which I feel was not in the best interest of the kids or the mother. At that time, I told the court she needed to be in therapy."

Communication with Tanicia broke down after the custody fight, he said.

"She didn't want to have contact with us, so she stopped taking my calls and stopped calling us," he said.

Cox said he spoke to caseworkers up here and told them she needed to be in therapy and on her medications.

Social services involved

In a statement, the Department of Children and Families said it was involved with Tanicia Goodwin as a child and again when she was 18 and requested voluntary services. The office said it got involved again last May after getting a report of physical abuse as a result of Goodwin disciplining Jamaal.

The agency had Goodwin sign a safety plan and provided child care and other services, including counseling on alternatives to physical discipline. Social workers had been in contact with Goodwin in the weeks and days prior to the Sunday night incident at Salem Heights.

"This incident of extreme violence has shocked all those who worked to support her and her family," DCF said in a statement. "There was nothing during our involvement that indicated the children were in danger."

The last time Wayne Cox spoke to Goodwin was about two weeks ago, during the same telephone conversation from Atlanta that Tanicia had with her brother.

"She sounded all right," he said "... She didn't say anything was troubling her other than Jamaal had got a bad mark (in school)."

After hanging up, Cox said Derek mentioned that she had inquired about moving down to Atlanta. She said nothing about that to him, Cox said.

"If she had asked me, I would have got on the road that day and come to get them," he said.

After all that has happened, Cox said he still has room in his heart for Tanicia.

"I still love her," he said. "I need her to try to explain to me what happened. I don't think I can ever forgive what happened, but I need to try to make sense of what happened."

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