Carolina* is from a rural neighborhood in El Salvador, so small it only had six houses. Carolina lived with her parents and three brothers and sisters. Her family was very poor, and on many days, there was not enough food to feed the whole family. At eight years old, Carolina stopped going to school so that she could help her family, working at home and in the fields. Because they were stressed by poverty, Carolina’s parents physically, emotionally and verbally abused her. They screamed at her, called her derogatory names, and hit her with a belt or whip. Carolina’s mother had had four children by the time she was nineteen; although she said she did not want her kids to lose their childhood as she had, she had few resources to help her manage her hardships.
When Carolina was 14 years old, a 40-year-old gang member began harassing her. He said he wanted to marry her. He threatened Carolina, saying that he could force her to marry him—which had happened to other girls that Carolina knew—or that he would physically harm her siblings.
Carolina was scared. She did not want to tell her parents. She felt they would blame her, saying she must have done something to attract his attention. Also, she knew they had little recourse in opposing a gang member; the authorities often worked with the gangs, so even her parents would have nowhere to turn for help. Recently, a friend of Carolina’s who was also being threatened by a gang member had poisoned herself. The death of this friend contributed to Carolina’s desperation. Although she had never been away from home before, she decided to go to the United States. She left without telling her parents.
A female human smuggler, or coyote, helped her reach the border. The coyote said Carolina would only have to pay the $3,000 fee if she made it into the U.S. Carolina was apprehended at the Texas border, so she did not have to pay the fee. She was sent to an Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shelter in Ohio, and removal proceedings against her began.
Carolina had an older cousin, Gloria, living in San Francisco. ORR released Carolina to her cousin’s care. Gloria wanted to help Carolina, but did not know what to do. She contacted a local immigrant resource center, and they referred her to Legal Services for Children. A LSC social worker met with Carolina and, in consultation with a LSC attorney, determined that she might be eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a path to legal permanent residency for minors who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected. Before applying for SIJS, Carolina needed to establish a legal guardian. Gloria offered to be Carolina’s guardian, so LSC’s social worker-attorney team began the process. LSC’s social worker conducted home visits to assess the viability of the guardianship, enrolled Carolina in high school, enrolled her in a health plan and took her to the required medical exams, took her for fingerprints, and accompanied her to all her court hearings.
LSC’s social worker also set up therapy for Carolina so she could begin to address the trauma she had experienced. Carolina’s attorney initiated the Guardianship petition, and once that was secured, defended her in deportation proceedings and represented her in applying for SIJ Status. This was also successful, and, after two years, Carolina now has legal permanent residence status. Her social worker continues to work with her, helping her with getting her social security card, a California ID, and other resources to ensure her stability.
Carolina is doing well in school, and looks forward to graduating so she can begin to work and support herself. She enjoys designing clothes, cooking, and writing. She and Gloria have expressed their gratitude to LSC, saying that without LSC’s services, Carolina would likely have been deported and experienced ongoing abuse from her parents and physical and emotional violence from the local gang member. With LSC’s advocacy, Carolina now has a safe and stable home, food, health care, education and the opportunity to thrive.