An Agent of Change

Grandparents during their bi-monthly grandparents support group meeting, where they share their stories, offer each other support and receive counseling from Robert Cosby, Ph.D.

Howard's School of Social Work forges community connections that make a difference.

Pillar No. 3 of Howard Forward 2024, the University’s strategic plan, is to serve the community in meaningful ways through impactful and collaborative partnerships that transcend the campus’s borders.

To see that aim in action, one need look no further than the School of Social Work. With the mission of preparing graduates to solve human problems and become leaders in their communities, the School of Social Work is an agent of change. One way the school is fulfilling this mission is through its work with grandfamilies.

More than 2.6 million children come from grandfamilies—homes where a grandparent is the primary caregiver— according to the latest U.S. Census data. Of those children, 1 million have no parent living in the home. Statistics also show that more than 2.5 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren. Nearly a quarter—24.2 percent of them—are African American. In the District of Columbia, 88 percent of grandparents raising their grandchildren are Black.

In the early 2000s, the School of Social Work completed a study for AARP about grandparents raising grandchildren, which found that those who serve as the primary caregiver for a grandchild often experience unique challenges. Some may be on a fixed income and have little room in the budget for the expenses that come with raising a child.

Others may be dealing with health problems. And some may feel a lack of support as their peers have likely finished raising children.

After the study was completed, the School of Social Work continued to work with the local community to help grandparents advocate for a bill that would eventually provide those raising grandchildren with a subsidy to help them with childrearing expenses. But there was more work to be done.

“After I completed the focus groups, the grandparents started calling me with questions and concerns,” said Sandra Edmonds Crewe, M.S.W., Ph.D., ACSW, dean of the School of Social Work. “I said, ‘Oh, this is not a one-and-done research project.’ That’s when we started the grandparents support group [Grandfamilies Program].”

Answering the Call

For local grandparents who found themselves tasked with being the primary caregiver for another child, the support group was a safe space to vent, share and learn new ways to approach difficult challenges.

Some of the circumstances that led grandparents to be responsible for their grandchildren are profound, some are tragic, but they’re all part of life, said Robert L. Cosby Jr., M.S.W., M.Phil., Ph.D., director of the School of Social Work’s Multidisciplinary Gerontology Center. In some cases, the parents are incarcerated. In others, the parents have died or are simply not in the picture.

“They all have their own stories and they all present in different ways,” said Cosby. “What Howard University School of Social Work has done during this process is give them a sounding board and an opportunity to speak among themselves in group settings, and talk about those issues that are important to them.”

Olivia Chase is one of the grandmothers who has benefited from the gatherings. Having already raised three sons as a single mother, Chase thought she was finished raising children, but life had other plans.

Chase’s son had served in the military and when he returned from Iraq, “he had the wounds that you couldn’t see,” she said. Her son’s life spiraled out of control and he and his wife ended up incarcerated. “I was left with this little three-month-old baby,” Chase said.

Today, the 63-year-old Chase says her life revolves around her 10-year-old grandson Richard, and many of her peers simply can’t relate. “I’ve had many people say to me, ‘Oh no, there’s no way I’d be raising another child,’ ” she said. “What I say to that, is, ‘You don’t know what you would do until you are faced with the situation, because before I was faced with the situation, I felt the same way.’ ”

A Pillar of Community Support

Chase credits the support group led by the School of Social Work with helping her to deal with the unique challenges that come with parenting her grandson.

“From the very beginning, grandparents really came together and were able to express our concerns about life and support one another,” Chase said. But Howard also gains something from working with the grandparents. “They make us better social workers,” said Crewe.

The AARP study also reported that grandparents often have difficulty locating affordable housing that suits their needs. For example, a grandparent living in senior housing typically can’t move a grandchild in with him or her. In September 2018, Plaza West, a 223-unit affordable housing community for seniors and residents of Ward 6, opened with 50 units designated for grandparents in the District who are raising their grandchildren.

In addition to leading the support group, the School of Social Work has provided mentoring and tutoring to the kids and even fulfilled holiday wish lists for the grandparents. School of Social Work faculty and students also volunteered at a back-to-school event for the children from the Grandfamilies Program at which they received school supplies. The School of Social Work is also partnering with Plaza West to come up with metrics that can help to gauge the success of the program.

Crewe sees the University even expanding the help given to the grandfamilies. “If we see that there are dietary needs, for example, we can talk to our School of Nursing and Allied Health to get them in to work with grandparents. If we feel that there are some legal matters, we can talk to our law school and have them do a workshop. We’re not seeing this just as an opportunity for social work to make a difference, we’re seeing it as an opportunity for Howard to make a difference.”

Wide-Ranging Contributions

While the Grandfamilies Program is one of the School of Social Work’s signature contributions to the community, it’s not the only one.

In addition to classroom time, each student volunteers in the District in areas related to their interests and concentrations.

Howard partners with various local field agencies to place students so they have the opportunity to strengthen their skills and the community has the benefit of their time and expertise. Some of the agencies Howard students have worked with in the past include Boystown Washington D.C., Brinton Woods Health & Rehabilitation Center, Child and Family Services Agency and Coalition for the Hopeless—Park Road Transitional House.

Members of the Howard community focus their work in different areas. For example, some might choose to work in criminal justice, others may choose to work with families and still others may choose to work in school settings.

The School of Social Work’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 2019, it was ranked No. 25 on U.S. News and World Report’s 2020 list of “Best Graduate Schools,” up five positions from the year before. But perhaps the biggest testament to the School of Social Work’s success is the impact it is having on the lives of D.C. residents like Olivia Chase.

“As we talk about the School of Social Work, we are talking about ways in which people make a difference in the world,” Cosby said.

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