Ella Johnson thought she was done raising kids. Then one night her daughter, asleep in bed with her 1-year-old son, died of a heart condition, and Johnson suddenly found herself mothering a grieving grandchild who clung to the picture of his dead mother.
The mother of three grown children, Johnson had plenty of experience with patching skinned knees and soothing teenage mood swings, but taking on the family's youngest generation brought a new set of worries about how to make ends meet and how to provide the right environment for her grandson, DaQuan'Ta Harper, who is now 12.
So she eagerly signed on to a National Institutes of Health research study started this year that provides grandparents around the country with practical advice and support for raising grandchildren. Project Cope (Caring for Others as a Positive Experience) will recruit 500 grandparents nationwide, including 126 in Baltimore and Baltimore County who, like Johnson, are raising grandchildren without any help from the child's parents.
For the past nine weeks she has led a small group of grandparents just like herself in a program that helps them learn to reduce stress. Using a curriculum that is handed out to participants, she takes the group through discussions of how to stop and think instead of overreacting and how to use their best coping techniques.
"We are focusing on how to help ourselves so we won't get too overwhelmed," she said. "They teach us to be concerned about ourselves."
On Mother's Day, Johnson was surrounded by children and grandchildren on the front porch of her west Baltimore house, as her son grilled hot dogs and hamburgers on the lawn and her mother cooked spaghetti in the kitchen. DaQuan'Ta, whose father has never been part of his life, said he gave his grandmother a hug and a kiss in the morning.
Raising grandchildren can be difficult, said Frederick Strieder, a clinical associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, who is the lead researcher for the project in Maryland. The children are coming because their own parents have died, are drug addicted, are in jail or were abusive. Sometimes the children have lived in chaotic circumstances. So the job may be harder than raising their own children was.
The research also is being conducted in Texas, Ohio and California. In Maryland, about 8 percent of children are living with a grandparent who is the head of the household. In Baltimore City the figure is 14 percent, according to census data, Strieder said. And in some city neighborhoods a quarter of all children are being raised by a grandparent.
The study attempts to give grandparents immediate support while also researching what will work best. Strieder said the study would divide people into three groups. Each will use a different curriculum focused on reducing stress, learning about resources in the community that can help them and exploring parenting strategies to help them through difficult situations. Unlike some studies, he said, there will be no placebo group. Everyone will get help.
Strieder said he was still recruiting grandparents for the study. About 11 or 12 groups in the area will meet two hours a week for 10 weeks, using one of the three approaches. Researchers will then interview the children and the grandparents every six months for two years.
Strieder said grandparents often find that just talking to other people in the same situation has helped them feel less isolated and more supported.
He said the researchers want to look at "what helps in terms of the grandparents and their parenting — what sticks over the long haul." The researchers will then redesign a curriculum based on what works.
Johnson must also help take care of her mother, who is in her 70s with health problems. She said members of the group are becoming friends and a support to one another; after the last session, she believes they will keep in touch.
"I thought I was taking care of myself, but I have really changed," Johnson said. She said she has learned to settle her mind, she said, so that instead of immediately getting upset when confronted with a problem, she slows down and thinks it through.
As her grandson has gotten older, Johnson said, her role has gotten easier. The program has helped.
"It teaches about how to work on your problems," she said, "instead of just worrying about them."
To contact Project Cope, call 855-462-8766 or go to the website ssw.umaryland.edu/cope/Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun