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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. Later, she remembers him, in some kind of drunken or drugged rage, pointing the weapon at his wife's head. 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. 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.


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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.

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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 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.

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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. She chose her words carefully, knowing the power each held. The government took her away from her parents' home.

She was Liliana was placed in a foster home, but chaos followed.

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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.


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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. Finally, things got more serious for Liliana.

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