TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Hope Austrie is 18 years old, enrolled in college and studying criminology. She’s planning a career in law enforcement and is a member of the Tampa Police Explorers.
But as recently as a year ago, her most ambitious dream was a warm bed, a hot meal and someone who might listen to her story about life as a foster child in Hillsborough County.
“I wasn’t able to go to school, I wasn’t able to go to work. I was just able to sit in a van,” Austrie said. “I didn’t have a clean shower, I didn’t have a bed to lay in. I was a homeless person basically in a car. I was homeless.”
Austrie called 8 On Your Side after our investigation exposed other foster kids spending their days, week after week, sitting in caseworkers’ cars in the parking lot of a Wawa gas station on Waters Avenue because they had nowhere else to go. We saw the same girl there week after week sitting in cars instead of school. That struck a chord with Austrie, who aged out of foster care last April after five years as a ward of the state
“That girl was me,” Austrie said. “It felt like a cage.”
She’s now living independently and attending HCC, but Austrie says her five years in foster care left scars on her soul that will be hard to forget.
“It felt like I was in a dungeon and I didn’t have anybody to help me escape,” Austrie said. “Every night when I used to be in foster care, I would just be laying down and close my eyes and think – if just one person hears my story, what will happen in this world, what will happen to this agency If just one person hears me out.”
She told us of bouncing between 20 or more homes during her five years in foster care, single night placements as far away as Orlando or Volusia County and spending many nights hungry and without the ability to take a shower or have fresh clothes because of her foster care instability.
Austrie remembers the kindness of a few caseworkers who seemed to care about her, and many who did not.
“They’re monsters, that’s how I see them – as monsters.”
After giving birth at the age of 14 while in foster care, Austrie says she complained to DCF, the Inspector General and the private child welfare agencies the state pays to provide foster care in Hillsborough County such as Eckerd, YFA and Camelot. She railed about her own treatment and the inability to be with her daughter, who is now four years old and also in foster care.
Austrie said no one acted on any of her complaints of mistreatment, even after she reported bruises on her daughter that she believed was the result of abuse in a foster home.
“It makes me feel angry because it’s like there’s nothing I can do about it and I was in that situation,” Austrie said.
She now tries to focus on the future and imagines a life with her daughter away from Tampa, the foul memories of her foster care and the abusive home life that made her a ward of the state in the first place.
“My hopes and dreams for life are to become a police officer so I can protect and serve these kids and help them grow and become the person that they’re supposed to be in life,” Austrie said.
DCF will soon send a panel of experts to Hillsborough for a top to bottom review of the foster care failures we helped expose in our recent Rides to Nowhere investigation.
If Austrie could speak with DCF Secretary Mike Carroll who ordered the review, she says this is what she’d tell him: “Please, please do what you can to get the right people to help these kids. Otherwise its just going to be a revolving door.”