It seems like a lot, but I don't save any money

THE MOTHER LOAD: Ann Tahitahi with some of the children for whom she cares.
THE MOTHER LOAD: Ann Tahitahi with some of the children for whom she cares.

Ann Tahitahi is one of New Zealand's 50 highest paid beneficiaries.

The 55-year-old grandmother receives $1300 a week to look after eight of her grandchildren whose parents were incapable of caring for them. She has two more grandkids in her care that she doesn't get paid to look after.

State-sponsored foster parents, paid to look after the children of parents incapable or unable to do the job, are New Zealand's highest paid beneficiaries, receiving up to $113,776 a year from the taxpayer.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett was initially concerned at the amount paid to those looking after unsupported children. Now, she believes these caregivers deserve every dollar.

Read her full reaction, and the views of others in the sector, here.

The first of Ann Tahitahi's seven grandchildren came to live with Tahitahi because their parents were addicted to P.

"Mum and Dad got a house in Glenfield in the 90s. Everything was rosy - Dad was working, Mum was home. It was a good neighbourhood. But coffee time, turned into P time," Tahitahi said.

She took responsibility for her grandchildren she saw being raised in a car, with coke in their baby bottles, while their parents were out doing deals.

"Most of their lives they have been through sh--," Tahitahi said.

Now, despite a degree of chaos that comes with 10 children in a small home, the kids have a stable, positive influence in their lives.

It is a happy household most of the time.

"It is not happy when Nan is yelling. But they know where they are and Nan doesn't run them down. I try to fill them with a lot of positive things."

Despite her benefit Tahitahi still has to work fulltime, on the graveyard shift at a residential care home, to pay rent. Her 19-year-old grandchild minds the kids at night.

"I pay the rent out of my wages. After the bills are paid I like to have about $800 left. I like to have $600 to $800 a week left for food," she said.

But even with a combined weekly income Tahitahi is struggling to make ends meet, keep healthy food on the table for her 10 grandchildren and provide for their future.

"It seems like a lot but I don't save any money. Lunches come to around $250 for a decent lunch. It's pretty basic - it's a good sandwich, lettuce and Vegemite, ham, they have their fruit. It kills me," she said.

She pays $75 a week for life insurance so that the kids will be looked after if anything happens to her.

"I signed up for insurance last year because if anything kills me, what would happen to the kids? I want to leave them a little something," she said.

But since her two grandkids moved in unsupported, she has started missing payments.

Aged 14 and 11, the two grandchildren showed up in December after their mother had a mental breakdown. Their father is in prison for armed robbery.

"They came down at Christmas and refused to go home," Tahitahi said.

Tahitahi, who has a diploma in social work and has nearly paid off her student loan, will continue to take in more grandchildren when they need help, teaching the children respect for others and themselves.

"I make sure they are at school every day. I feed them. This is a secure place. These children know they are safe here," she said.

But the children remain fiercely loyal to their parents and she wants to give the children back to her daughter. But until her daughter can show she is clean of drugs and ready for the responsibility of children Tahitahi will continue to care for them.

"I'll hopefully get her on the straight and narrow, not so much with the drugs, just with her total life. If she can prove that to me I do want to give the kids back because that is where they belong," she said.

Tahitahi and her eight siblings were taken from her parents by the state not because they were neglected, but because they were just so poor.

"We had no shoes, we had no lunch. We were poor," she said.

She was raised by her "staunch" aunt and minister uncle who provide support and morals.

She believes one positive influence is enough to change outcomes for poor children.

Three of her grandchildren, one aged 20 and two 19, have graduated from Tahitahi's care and are now making lives of their own. One is in the army, one studying engineering and the last about to join the navy.

"One of the grandchildren told me, ‘None of our family would be here if it wasn't for you'. That brought tears to my eyes," she said.

Read more - Beneficiaries: Bludgers or heroes?

Sunday Star Times