Mother pleads not guilty in attack on children

‘I did what I had to do,’ Salem woman says

This story was reported by David Abel, Brian R. Ballou, and Kathy McCabe of the Globe staff and by Globe correspondent Zachary T. Sampson. It was written by Abel.

SALEM - When police found the woman they say had slashed the throats of her two young children, they did not have to go far: The 25-year-old mother had walked to the Police Department, smashed a glass display case in the lobby, and collapsed there, with blood and lighter fluid staining her clothing, prosecutors said.

“I did what I had to do to protect my children,’’ she told police several times. “I’m sorry.’’

Less than 24 hours after allegedly trying to kill her children and setting her apartment in a large public housing complex on fire, Tanicia Goodwin appeared in Salem District Court Monday and pleaded not guilty to two counts of armed assault with intent to murder, two counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, and arson.

Wearing a light-blue hospital smock, Goodwin appeared disoriented and asked for a court-appointed lawyer. She was ordered held without bail.

In recent weeks, the state Department of Children and Families had been in direct contact with Goodwin, her children, and other professionals working with the family, said Cayenne Isaksen, a spokeswoman for the department. She said none of those professionals expressed concern for the children’s safety.

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

When firefighters arrived at the fire Sunday night, Goodwin had fled to a neighbor’s unit with her 3-year-old daughter, who had a knife wound on her neck, Assistant Essex District Attorney Melissa Woodard said during the arraignment.

Firefighters who entered Goodwin’s apartment encountered thick smoke and found that the inside door knob had been removed. Smoke detectors were disabled, and sprinkler heads had been sealed off with duct tape and rags, Woodard said.

Firefighters crawled along the hallway off the living room and quickly found 8-year-old Jamaal on a couch, suffering from a deep laceration on his neck that exposed his trachea. Jamal is a student at Witchcraft Heights Elementary School.

He was flown to Children’s Hospital in Boston, and his sister, Erica, was taken there by ambulance. Both children, who prosecutors said had to have lighter fluid cleaned off their bodies before undergoing surgery, were listed in critical condition.

During an interview with police, Goodwin allegedly told them that she had planned to commit suicide, Woodard said. “I’m not supposed to be here,’’ she told them. “I’m not supposed to be alive.’’

She added: “I’m sorry. I just wanted to protect my babies. Momma loves you. You know I love you guys so much. Momma loves you. I wish you were here right now. I just wanted to protect them.’’

As investigators questioned Goodwin, they were told by other investigators that both children had indicated with nods of their heads that Goodwin had wounded them, Woodard said.

According to a police report, Goodwin asked if her children were OK.

“Thank you, God,’’ she responded, according to the report. “Please keep them alive.’’

Investigators later found three large lighter fluid containers in Goodwin’s apartment, one in her bedroom and two in her children’s bedroom, and a large kitchen knife in the living room, Woodard said. They found matches in the bathroom sink and a lighter on the kitchen counter. The family had lived there for four years.

In a statement, Isaksen said the Department of Children and Families “had involvement’’ with Goodwin when she was a child, although she did not explain the circumstances.

When Goodwin turned 18 years old, she requested voluntary services from the department, which continued for two years, Isaksen said. During that time, Goodwin asked if a relative could be appointed as a guardian of her son, who was 2 years old. She said Goodwin later regained custody.

She apparently gave up custody of her son because she was trying to earn her high school equivalency diploma, said Deborah Cox, a maternal cousin from Dorchester.

She said Goodwin was also having a hard time because she had recently lost her mother.

She was “just trying to break the chains of dependency on welfare,’’ said Cox, who last saw Goodwin at a family reunion in September.

She said Goodwin had seemed like a nurturing mother. “I saw a loving mother who adored her children,’’ Cox said. “Never did I see any kind of misbehavior, anything unkind.’’

She said Goodwin had pulled away from the family in recent months, which she said was not unusual.

Her brother, Wayne Cox of Atlanta, said he raised Goodwin’s son from late 2004 until June 2010. For much of that time, Cox said, he lived in the same apartment building as Goodwin in Massachusetts. He said he “had issues with [Goodwin] about her way of handling’’ her son, whom he described as having autism.

“She would hit him with shoes and things,’’ Cox said. “When she can’t get what she wants, she lashes out with a shoe or whatever else she could get her hands on.’’ Still, he said, Goodwin’s actions Sunday came “way out of left field.’’

“Tanicia had two sides to her,’’ he said. “She could be very sweet and loving, and then there was the terror.’’

In May 2011, the department received a report of physical abuse while Goodwin “was in the process of disciplining her oldest child.’’

“When confronted, she acknowledged it was not appropriate discipline,’’ Isaksen said. “She signed a safety plan and accepted services.’’

Services included child care, after-school services, and alternatives to physical discipline to manage her children’s behavior.

“Professionals involved throughout our work with the family did not indicate concern regarding Ms. Goodwin’s parenting of her two children,’’ Isaksen said. “She was engaged in efforts to develop her educational and career goals.’’

“The two children are currently in the custody of the department, but remain at the hospital.’’

One of Goodwin’s next-door neighbors, Eleanor Norris, said she never imagined that Goodwin could hurt her children.

“She was very nice, very kind, patient, and friendly,’’ Norris said. “She was a nice person. She was outside with her kids all the time.’’

She said she saw Goodwin offering a neighbor something on Sunday and seemed to be fine. “I never saw anything out of the ordinary,’’ Norris said.

Another neighbor, who also lived on the same floor as Goodwin, had a different view. “There was something wrong with that girl,’’ said the woman, who asked not to be identified. “She did not seem to like children.’’

The woman said she based her observations on watching Goodwin and her children come in and out of the elevator, which is near her unit.

“I once saw the little girl wrap her arms around the mother’s legs, like she wanted to be picked up, and the little girl was pushed away,’’ she said. “I also saw her holler at her son, and the poor boy just shook and shook. I thought he was scared of her.’’

Goodwin is due back in court March 26 for a hearing to determine her danger to others.

John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report. David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.