“Sivam Lekh, 5 months.”
At the words, a gasp, or maybe it was a groan, rose from the pews of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Church in midtown.
Until that moment, the dozens of names that had been read aloud for the Homeless Memorial Interfaith Service, held last week to remember people who have died without permanent housing in Sacramento County, were of grizzled men and women. People who were in their 40s, 50s and 60s when they passed away. People who had mental illness problems and addiction problems, and had bounced from shelters to the streets and back again for years.
But 5 months old?
The story of Sivam Lekh is every bit as tragic as you might imagine. He was born into chaos and died, we can only hope, with a little bit of peace. In many ways, the boy with a mop of black hair and deep black eyes didn’t have a chance.
His short life started June 25, 2014. He was born to Desiree Salazar, a woman with a history of violence, childhood trauma, mental illness, drug addiction, attempted suicide and, unsurprisingly, run-ins with the law.
Most people would consider her to be an unfit mother. At 34, her body bears the clear scars of meth use, physical abuse and the hardship of living on the streets.
She speaks in long, often disjointed sentences, but is quick-witted, funny and curses like a sailor. She has a bad habit of getting angry and taking off her clothes in public to calm down, or just to dance. Sometimes she tears up when she talks about Sivam. Other times, such as when she talks about an ex-boyfriend, her black eyes harden like hunks of granite.
Her hatred and suspicion of Sacramento County Child Protective Services runs deep – so deep that Salazar has “F--- CPS” tattooed on her neck. On her face, she has tattoos for each her children, including two miscarriages, both boys she named Omar.
The tattoo of Sivam’s name is on Salazar’s forehead. He was her fifth child.
At the time of his birth, Salazar says her relationship with Sivam’s father, also Sivam, and his family was, at best, rocky. CPS reports confirm the domestic violence. Salazar spins tales of beatings, near-constant rape and sexual slavery – tales so tall that while I have no doubt many horrible things happened, I somehow doubt all of them did.
Sipping on a Starbucks Frappuccino, her new obsession, Salazar told me the bitter tale of how she bounced from apartment to apartment with Sivam in tow, at once trying to get away from the relationship and inviting it back into her life. In between, she says, she found herself in even more dangerous situations.
By October 2014, she was desperate. That’s when Salazar wandered into the Maryhouse shelter at Loaves & Fishes for the first time. She had Sivam strapped to her body, clean and happy, cradled in a wrap.
“The first day she came in as a housed woman,” said Shannon Stevens, an intake specialist at Maryhouse. But within a few weeks, “she had no consistent residence and was sleeping outside, mostly because she was trying to get away from CPS.”
Salazar was afraid of what would happen to Sivam.
She still blames the agency for the claimed abuse of her other son, Omar, while he was in foster care. In 2012, the boy’s adoptive parents claimed the foster parents held Omar in boiling hot bathwater as punishment for going to the bathroom in his diaper. The adoptive parents decided to sue CPS over it. That case eventually was dismissed without a decision or a settlement, but there’s an ongoing lawsuit against the foster parents’ apartment complex.
I should note that Omar – the same “Baby Omar” that’s tattooed above Salazar’s eyebrow – bounced around several foster homes because of the legal troubles of his mother and biological father, Omar Repreza. They include trying to steal a car in 2009 and Salazar stabbing a man five times.
“She said to me repeatedly that ‘I know what I have to do,’ ” Stevens recounted, saying she had urged Salazar to consider turning over Sivam to CPS. But then Salazar would say, “It’s the fear of what I have to do, based on the history.”
On Oct. 23, Salazar tested positive for pot and meth, violating her probation. Sivam was placed in foster care. There was no other option, especially because, according to a CPS report, Sivam’s father also failed to follow a safety plan in which he agreed to bar Salazar from having unsupervised visits until she got help for her substance abuse and anger management issues.
A few weeks later, a social worker who went to see Sivam in foster care found him “cooing and smiling,” even though he had motor delays and a mysterious bump on his left foot.
A few weeks after that, on Nov. 25, 2014, two days before Thanksgiving, Sivam was dead. He died in his sleep.
The official cause of death was SIDS.
The news sent Salazar into a months-long tailspin of addiction and depression. She’s furious with CPS and talks a lot about how too many children die in foster care. She doesn’t want to hear about having no one to blame for Sivam’s death. She’s homeless and living in a shelter, but she’s also clean for the first time in months and fighting to stay that way. I wish her luck.
After all of this – the anger, the abuse, the tattoos, the death – I asked Salazar if she wants to have kids again. I cringed a little when she said, “Yes.”
“Why?” I asked. “Why would you want to do that?”
“Because,” Salazar said after a minute, looking me dead in the eye, “it’s my God-given right.”