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A GoFundMe account has been set up to help reunite Carmina Salcido and her daughter, Zophia. To donate, go here

Top stories of 2014

Twenty-five years to the day after an incomprehensible act of violence altered the life of Boyes Hot Springs toddler Carmina Salcido, Sonoma County still searches for signs that hers will be a good and happy life despite its ghastly beginning.

Carmina was days short of age 3 when her jealous, enraged father sliced her throat and those of her two sisters the morning of April 14, 1989. Then Ramon Salcido murdered the girls' mother, almost everyone else in the extended family, and a co-worker. He also tried to kill two other people.

A day and a half later, little Carmina was discovered off to the side of a rural south-county road — alive! — near the bodies of her sisters.

Amid the horror and revulsion and fear of one of Sonoma County's darkest moments, there was cause for joy. Carmina became the county's little girl, an instant and prolonged beneficiary of many strangers' kindness, generosity and hope.

Yet today, as Carmina approaches her 28th birthday, a sustained upturn in her life continues to elude her.

She is minimally employed and relies on others for most basic needs, but her greatest crisis is the prospect that she may permanently lose custody of her own daughter, Zophia Angela Salcido. The child, nicknamed Zoe, is virtually the same age that Carmina was at the time of the 1989 killing spree that left her an orphan with nightmares and a scar clear across her neck.

Zoe, who turned 3 on Sunday, lives with foster parents in Santa Rosa. County child-protection officials took her from Carmina and her former boyfriend, Matthew Inocencio, early last year upon finding evidence that her safety was in jeopardy from factors that included drug use, poor judgment and "chronic domestic violence."

Carmina, who lives in a Cotati apartment paid for by strangers, is allowed to be only a very part-time mom to Zoe. "I see her two times a week, four hours each time," she said.

She contends she has done well at meeting the demands of Child Protective Services aimed at bringing greater stability and responsibility to her life.

"I understand I need to do more work," Carmina said. Still, she said, she believes she has demonstrated she is a good parent and that she is being unfairly denied access to her daughter.

By law, all records and proceedings related to the child's removal from her parents' custody are secret. The CPS social workers, attorneys, counselors and others involved in the case are prohibited from speaking publicly about it.

"I can't comment on any dependency case," said Jacqueline Gillespie, listed in a case document as the attorney appointed to represent Zoe. "These cases are difficult enough without the public eye being drawn into it."

Carmina shared with The Press Democrat a report on her family's Juvenile Dependency Court case that a CPS worker submitted to a Sonoma County judge earlier this year. It notes that CPS child-welfare authorities first became aware of Zoe, "an adorable and brilliant 2-year-old," in January 2013.

At that time, the social worker wrote, "It was substantiated that there was substantial risk that Zoe would suffer as a result of the inability of her parents to adequately protect her."

The county placed the girl temporarily with a foster family and ordered the parents onto a regimen of therapy and counseling. The report gives Carmina and Zoe's father a good deal of credit, saying "both parents have worked very hard to complete their case plan objective and have, in fact, met their client responsibilities."

Carmina said that as part of fulfilling the demands placed on her, she is receiving counseling and has completed mandatory classes, including one at the Drug Abuse Alternatives Center. She said one of the most "devastating" accusations lodged against her over the past 15 months "was that I was a drug addict."

She said she did obtain a medical marijuana card and used cannabis for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and insomnia, but that since Zoe was taken away she has quit and has passed all the drug tests.

Despite progress shown by Carmina and Inocencio, the CPS worker declared in the report that a year after their child was taken from them "the parents still face challenges."

In Carmina's case, the report says, "the reality is, Ms. Salcido has a history of having poor judgment and, unfortunately, she has not had the opportunity to demonstrate her ability to protect the child from harm."

The update report to the court noted that on several occasions Carmina failed to comply with the requirement that on the days she spends time with Zoe she must phone ahead an hour before picking her up. Those visitations then were cancelled.

Carmina cited cellphone and car troubles. "I didn't have a car for a long time," she said.

The crux of the issue seems to be contained in the social worker's declaration to the court that she "cannot confidently state that Ms. Salcido is emotionally and cognitively able to demonstrate her ability to supervise, protect or care for Zoe if the child were returned home."

Carmina insists that she has worked hard, in the absence of the family support denied her by her father's rampage, to be a responsible mother and to work through the effects of the pain in her life.

She has said that the slashing of her throat and the murders of her mother, both of her sisters, her grandmother and her two school-age aunts were not the final catastrophes of her childhood.

Once the 3-year-old Carmina healed from Ramon Salcido's attempt to kill her — his knife blade had barely missed her carotid artery — she was placed in the care of a Midwest couple she has said were physically and psychologically abusive.

In "Not Lost Forever: The Story of My Survival," the 2009 autobiography she co-wrote with author Steve Jackson, she recalls her adoptive parents slapping and demonizing her.

One passage reads, "If I 'mouthed off,' or was otherwise disrespectful, they would pour Tabasco sauce onto my tongue or insert a bar of soap into my mouth."

Carmina said in the book that her adoptive mother "would accuse me of being possessed by a demon, 'like your father.'" She said the couple spoke of finding a priest to conduct an exorcism on her.

"While it never came to that," Carmina and Jackson wrote, the woman who had become her mother "began waking me up in the morning by throwing 'holy water' in my face."

Speaking of the personal issues she deals with, Carmina said, "There are years and years of trauma and you don't cure that in a year or two, or five or 20. It's a lifetime of work."

As she has worked to fulfill the self-improvement demands placed upon her by the child-protection system, Carmina has not been entirely alone. Many people touched by her story have reached out to her over the years.

Lately, her advocates include Mary Graves, who teaches life-planning classes in the Extended Education department at Sonoma State University. Carmina enrolled in one of her classes for two semesters in 2012 and early 2013.

Graves said that throughout one semester, she and Carmina "focused solely on the issues that were identified as a problem by CPS."

"Carmina was able to identify and repair her parenting mistakes from the past," Graves said. "She wrote about the unsafe places she left her child and the poor choices in people. She took a stand to be far more discerning and cautious."

"Carmina has clearly learned from her mistakes," the instructor said. She added that Carmina's attempts to secure work — she has moved among a number of jobs in recent years — are hampered by all the effort required for her to meet the demands of CPS and the court.

For the past three months, Carmina has worked as a commission-only sales representative for a Sonoma County solar-power firm, Corona Power. Founder Cameron Park said she has been reliable and diligent.

"She's got a lot going on," Park said. "We appreciate her situation and we definitely want to help her as well."

The question of whether the parental rights of Carmina and Inocencio should be terminated appears to be headed for a Dependency Court trial.

The two parents are attempting to work together to seek shared custody of Zoe. Carmina said she does not believe that CPS has fairly evaluated the work she and Inocencio have done nor their ability to responsibly parent their daughter.

Nick Honey, the county's director of Family, Youth and Children' Services, confirmed that he is precluded from commenting.

Currently represented by a court-appointed attorney, Carmina said she would like to retain a private lawyer to argue her case but she can't afford one. She tells of feeling the county's child dependency system is tilted against her as she tries to give Zoe "what I didn't have — a family."

A quarter of a century ago, Carmina narrowly escaped death by her father's hands; now she finds herself in the position of trying to prove that her child is safe in hers.

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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