People Thought She Would End Up On The Streets Or Locked Up. She Proved Them Wrong.
As a small girl, Liliana Flores liked to wear sneakers and jeans to match her father's. One day, he asked her to pose for a picture at the family's home in El Salvador. In the top of her tiny waistband, he snuggled in a gun.
She smiled proudly.
Later, she remembers him, in some kind of drunken or drugged rage, pointing the weapon at his wife's head.
"Get on your knees!" her father yelled. Liliana feared an execution.
Liliana rushed in and clung to her mother, her cheeks wet with terrified tears. She did the only thing she knew to do: She fought back.
Liliana whacked her father with a broomstick. She said he eventually let go of the gun and threw his little girl across the room.
Liliana said she got up and made a decision on the spot: She would take care of herself. She was six years old.
BUMPS AND BRUISES
The Flores family's world "applauded" violence, Liliana later reflected, and it was a hereditary disease.
Liliana, whose family and friends often call her by the nickname Patty, would grow up sensing people expected little of her and saw her as someone destined to live a life of poverty and violence. Eventually she'd decide that she deserved better. But things got worse first.
Liliana's parents headed north to find work, leaving her and her sister with their grandmother. Eventually, her parents sent for her. They hired a coyote to smuggle her and her sister across three borders: "The one from El Salvador to Guatemala and the one from Guatemala to Mexico and the one from Mexico to the United States," she said.
What Liliana remembers most about the journey was the hunger. She and her sister had little to eat. When they stopped at a stranger's house to sleep, Liliana noticed an avocado tree growing nearby. She picked the fruit to share with her sister. Liliana was 10.
They reunited with their parents in Reseda, where Liliana enrolled in public school. Her teacher didn't speak Spanish, but that was OK with her, because her classmates did.
One day at school, someone from the government came. The school's staff had found out that her parents had abused her, Liliana said. She had bumps on her head and bruises on her back. Liliana said the blows came when she showed up at home with a piercing her mother didn't like. She and her parents were frequently getting into violent screaming matches, she said, adding that her dad kicked her out for a spell.
Liliana left class and was told to sit down in an administrator's office with a social worker -- and a cop.
"It was intimidating," she said. "So many people with authority questioning you."
She chose her words carefully, knowing the power each held.
"I didn't want to go to foster care, but I also didn't want to live with my parents, because I had endured so much pain," said Liliana.
The government took her away from her parents' home. She was 14.
"NOTHING AND NOBODY"
Liliana was placed in a foster home, but chaos followed. Many of the young women she lived with had been in the foster care system for a long time, she explained, and they showed little fear of bringing alcohol into the house and breaking curfew. Liliana joined in.
She starting kicking it with a neighborhood gang, South Side Reseda. Liliana tried methamphetamine and found she liked the rush. Her first arrest was for possession of drug paraphernalia.
Liliana found herself in the hands of two of the most embattled agencies in Los Angeles County: foster care and probation. One county official said kids in that situation have "nothing and nobody," and find themselves the responsibility of social workers, probation officers, cops and judges.
Outcomes are often grim. Success stories are rarely about young people's transformation; usually they're about stabilization. They're sober. They're housed. Their mental health is stable.
Liliana described her way of coping as innate: fight and flight. She'd grown angry and frequently came to blows with other girls at the group homes. Other times, she'd split for weeks.
A cycle began. Liliana would get locked up and released with an order from a judge to behave at her group home. But she'd run away again, and get picked up for going AWOL, a violation of probation. Back to lockup she would go.
She got an expletive tattooed on her neck: "f-- love."
THE TURNING POINT
Finally, things got more serious for Liliana. After spending three months in juvenile hall for one of her probation violations, she found herself standing again before a judge. She listened as a prosecutor explained to the judge that they had given Liliana many chances. The judge agreed it was time for more severe consequences and sentenced her to six months in juvenile camp, a longer-term lockup for minors. Liliana was 17.
The sentence seemed excessively harsh to her. She thought they had her all wrong.
"They definitely didn't go through all the things that I had been going through," Liliana said. "They had this image of me -- and the people who are incarcerated -- [that] they are just bad people ... it pissed me off."
She'd show them, she thought. First, she'd need her high school diploma. While locked up, Liliana started studying, day and night, for the exit exam. She failed the math section on her first go. She decided to work harder. A teacher took her under her wing and offered extra help. Liliana earned the admiration of the camp staff and fellow inmates for her disciplined study.
She took the test again and passed. She enrolled in community college while still incarcerated.
When Liliana regained her freedom, she was put in contact with Yadhira Quintana, a deputy probation officer.
Quintana subjected her to a different kind of questioning: What do you need?
Quintana connects foster kids with the kind of help that is often a given in middle-class families: assistance applying to college, enrollment in driving school, links to drug addiction treatment and programs that help with rent. But it's up to them to take advantage of it.
"I've never seen someone take advantage like Liliana," Quintana said.
Liliana was all business. She came to appointments with Quintana on time, paperwork in hand.
Liliana knew she had to work harder than "everybody else," Quintana said.
Liliana was still plagued with anxiety and sought out a therapist. She and Quintana formed a lasting partnership of mutual respect.
Liliana found work at Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit that supports the formerly incarcerated and those who have left gangs. She would spend hours on the bus commuting from the San Fernando Valley to the heart of Los Angeles to work there as a janitor. It was well worth it. The nonprofit connected her with a lawyer who helped Liliana obtain legal protection under DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Homeboy also offered free tattoo removal. The expletive on Liliana's neck slowly and painfully disappeared.
When Liliana was accepted to UC Riverside, she excitedly called Quintana.
"She's relentless," Quintana said.
Quintana helped Liliana get a $9,000 scholarship and another $6,000 for rental assistance. She graduated in June with a BA in sociology.
"I think society shapes us in the way we think and behave," Liliana said.
For a while, Liliana dreamed of becoming a probation officer like Quintana, but now she's having second thoughts. While she made a turnaround after being incarcerated, she looks back and thinks the government putting a troubled teen in a "cage" is "insane."
"I felt growing up that I didn't have a voice," Liliana said. "It just made it worse."
She thinks kids caught up in the juvenile justice system deserve better. It's something that was on her mind all year as her college graduation approached, Liliana said. She thought things needed to change, and that she could help.
Liliana applied to USC's graduate school of social work and was thrilled to learn she was accepted. Then she got the eye-popping $108,000 price tag.
"I'm like, eh, I'm not excited anymore," she said.
Liliana deferred enrolling, but she hasn't given up. She's thinking that maybe a state college would be more financially feasible. She set up a GoFundMe page, and she's keeping her eyes trained on her next goal.
In her personal essay to USC, Liliana laid it out: to work for "healthy development for all youth, stop family violence, end homelessness, promote smart decarceration, and achieve equal opportunity and justice."
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