Grandmother Who Stole to Feed Five Grandkids Faces Prison
Mary Alice Austin lives in Detroit and has custody of her grandchildren: four from her daughter, who's battling drug addiction and couldn't care for them herself, and one child from her son, who's been in prison for the past 20 years. As a nursing home aide, her salary of $8,000 to $10,000 a year wasn't enough to cover the family's expenses. So she broke the law.
Austin is being sentenced on Friday for Social Security fraud. Court documents say she collected nearly $120,000 in disability checks over the past 20 years for her son -- who was actually in prison all that time, not under her care. As part of a plea agreement, she faces 10 to 16 months in jail.
"Although Ms. Austin regrettably continued to accept her son's Social Security checks unlawfully, she did not use the money to live beyond her means or to live a lavish lifestyle," Austin's lawyer, Natasha Webster, wrote in court documents excerpted by The Detroit Free Press.
The nearly $120,000 Austin accumulated in fraudulent checks over 20 years gave her family an extra $6,000 a year -- enough to barely make ends meet. Her total income of $14,000 to $16,000 a year is still below the federal poverty line for a single-parent family with five children.
For Austin, it seems like life has always been a struggle. Her own mother was disabled, and her parents divorced when she was 16. Then Austin was forced to raise her younger siblings. She went on to marry and have three children of her own, but she was widowed at age 50.
Her son is mentally ill and has been on disability benefits since he was 13. In 1990, he was convicted of armed robbery and substance abuse and sent away to prison.
After that, Austin continued to collect his disability checks and never reported that he'd gone to prison. In 1996, she filled out a Social Security form claiming that he was still living with her at the time. And in 2002, Austin actually hired someone to pose as her son, to undergo medical exams to check whether he was still eligible for benefits. It's unclear who that person was.
After 20 years, the government uncovered the fraud. Now Austin faces prison time herself. Her grandchildren would have to go into foster care -- the very fate those extra disability checks allowed her to prevent.
Her lawyer is pleading for leniency, saying it's significant that Austin has admitted her mistakes. She's hoping for home confinement instead of jail. The grandchildren have also written statements to the court, asking for their grandmother to be allowed to stay home.
"We didn't have much, but what we did have she made it work," wrote one of the grandkids, age 12. "I'm just asking you don't take my grandmom away from us."