Fostered youth breaks cycle of abuse

Hitting rock bottom is a sign of failure for most, but for Liliana Flores, 21, it has been a steppingstone to success. Despite the obstacles that life has brought her, she has built a career around her struggles.

Flores, former Pierce College student, did not let her rough childhood intervene with her educational goals. She graduated from Pierce in spring 2016 with two associate’s degrees in social behavioral sciences and administration of justice. She is currently attending UC Riverside and working toward a bachelor’s degree in sociology.

Flores, sociology major, was born and raised in El Salvador where she was physically abused by her parents.

“I use to go to school with bruises and bumps on my head,” Flores said.

Flores’ parents came to the United States, and she stayed behind with her paternal grandmother.  At 10 she came to the United States where the physical abuse continued. Child Services eventually became aware of the situation.

Flores was in foster care until 18. At 13, Flores began using drugs and was continuously being sent to different foster homes due to her behavior. She was sent to juvenile hall five times.

“When I was in foster care, I started meeting people and that is kind of how I became involved in gangs. I met the gang because of a friend I had when I was in foster care. Instead of going to school, I would hang out with my friends. It was my entry to drugs and gangs,” Flores said.

Flores was put into a juvenile prevention camp, a rehabilitation program, at 17.

“It was my first time going to camp. I felt like I had more academic support because the teachers encouraged me to go to school,” Flores said. “That’s when I started focusing more in school. I would get awards weekly for my behavior and academic achievement.”

Flores did not have any support from her family outside of camp, but with the help of her probation officer, Flores was able to find a place to live. Independent Living Program, a program for former foster youth children, provided her with a place to stay while she attended Pierce.

Without a role model, Flores was not very informed about college, but with a counselor’s help and the foster youth office, she was able to get support to continue her education. But Flores still felt out of place attending college.

“When I first started Pierce, I felt like an outsider. I didn’t feel comfortable coming to school because I have a lot of tattoos. Even going to the restroom would make me uncomfortable because I dress masculine,” Flores said.

According to Flores, education has helped her a lot. She is more understanding and patient.

“Growing up, I was very aggressive. I couldn’t really trust people,” Flores said. “I was self-conscious. I feared authority, especially women, because my mom was very abusive.”

As an adult, Flores came across many struggles. There were times when she didn’t eat, or ate once a day. In addition, without a Social Security number, it was difficult for her to get a job. Nevertheless, a lawyer whom she met at Homeboy Industry, a program that helps formerly incarcerated people, helped her get a work permit.

Flores is now working for the Cooperating Agencies Foster Youth Educational Support (CAFYES) program at Pierce as a peer mentor to help people who are having problems at home.

“I decided to become a mentor because I can relate to these people and I want to make a change in them,” Flores said. “It also keeps me busy.”

According to Flores, she is helping out the community by helping out people who went through the same situation.

“I’ve been a guest speaker since I was 19. I go to places to speak about my life. I have spoken in front of judges, lawyers, professors, and teachers on how they can help out other youth,” Flores said.

Jessica Muñoz, case manager of Women’s Care Cottage, has known Flores for almost three years. According to Muñoz, Flores came from a challenging background where she didn’t trust a lot of people and had a hard time communicating her feelings.

“She continued to make effort with growing commitment to herself, which included waking up daily and furthering her education. She displayed determination,” Muñoz said.

“Liliana self advocates. She purchased her first car in the program, gained scholarships and several academic awards, and moved into her first place,” Muñoz said. “She is a protocol of change and I have has the best pleasure of witnessing it all.”

Flores’ sister Jennifer Flores says growing up was sad and stressful. She didn’t like to see her sister getting hit and she worried for her.

“I always believed in her when everybody else didn’t. She was very stubborn, troubled, out of control and in bad terms,” Jennifer Flores said. “Now, she tries to stay away from problems.

“I admire the fact that there are a lot of people that appreciate her, including myself. I am at Pierce because of her. She helped me enroll at Pierce.”