Yes, it’s hard to think about kids with cancer. But please don’t look away. (Here’s how you can help)

This essay was originally published in The Washington Post.  Additional pictures are posted on their website and also in a separate story published on The Huffington Post.

It’s 6:30 a.m. and the sun is starting to peek out over the horizon. I take another gulp of my coffee, and leave the keys with the valet outside the hospital. I check my camera, making sure I have a formatted memory card and fresh batteries in my flash.

As I grab my bag from the back seat, I can’t help but notice the mismatched socks, leftover granola wrappers, and wrinkled school fliers that litter my car. I take a deep breath, thankful that my kids’ seats are empty. I’m not at the hospital for them this morning. I’m there for 4-year-old Phoebe.

About four years ago, I started taking pictures of sick kids. I look for smiles in hospital rooms and look past IV poles in hopes of capturing the fleeting moments of carefree childhoods that exist alongside tragic diagnoses and crippling test results. I look for little hands grasping onto hospital beds as toddlers take their first steps in brightly decorated triage rooms. My heart skips a beat when I see an older sister smile at a younger sibling, knowing that siblings, too, suffer when their loved ones are sick.

Please don’t ask me why or how I do it. (If you insist on knowing, I will tell you that offering these pictures is nourishing to my soul.)

Please don’t tell me that it must be so sad. (Of course it is. But it’s also incredibly rewarding and beautiful.)

Instead, please ask me what you can do to help kids like Phoebe.

In the age of social media, it is easy to run across pictures and stories of kids facing devastating odds and feel helpless. As I stood by Phoebe’s bedside that day, I felt that way, too. Phoebe had been recently diagnosed with DIPG, an aggressive brain tumor. While there are treatments to improve her quality of life, the long-term prognosis is tragically grim.

Only 4 percent of all cancer funding is earmarked for childhood cancer research. And in the past 20 years, only three new pediatric cancer-specific drugs have been developed. This month, when you see pictures on Facebook reminding you that September is childhood cancer awareness month, please don’t just get sad. Get involved.

Here are four things you can do this month to help kids like Phoebe.

1. Call your representatives in Congress. Tell them that you care about cancer research legislation. Learn about federal cancer programs. Ask your representatives to participate in the Childhood Cancer Caucus, “a clearinghouse for information on pediatric cancer and a forum to aid Members of Congress in working together to address pediatric cancer.”

2. Participate in childhood cancer awareness and advocacy foundations. Give money if you’re able. Many organizations help cancer patients and survivors develop important allies in the fight against childhood cancer. As the St. Baldrick’s Foundation explains, “Childhood cancer drugs aren’t very profitable for pharmaceutical companies, which is why so few have been developed. But as a result of the childhood cancer community’s united advocacy efforts, the Creating Hope Act changed that, offering companies vouchers to expedite the development and approval of these drugs.”

3. What is your superpower? Medical providers offer the crucial life-changing support to children battling pediatric cancer. But consider if there is some special talent that you have to offer these families. Whether you are a great cook, a decent photographer or a gifted party planner, families can really benefit from your services.

4. If you know a family battling pediatric cancer (or other life-altering challenge), consider offering to help in specific, concrete ways. Helping doesn’t require a huge commitment or some unique talent. And while general offers to help are appreciated, it can be difficult for a family to ask you to help with a specific task. Instead, consider the daily things most families do – food shopping, cleaning, picking up dinner – and offer to complete that task. Or if you know something that the child really likes, consider creating opportunities for the child to have a magical experience during the days in between treatment. For example, kids who love animals might really like free tickets to a zoo, kids who adore cooking might be wowed by having a chance to cook with a talented chef. And parents who are completely and utterly exhausted might appreciate a pre-paid night out to dinner and a movie – child care included.

Last summer, I was asked to talk about my experiences working with chronically ill children and their families. And while I am a former litigator-turned-law professor, I struggled to find my voice. It wasn’t until the very end of the talk, when the parents of these children addressed the audience, that I finally heard the words I was hoping to say. Phoebe’s dad, Cole Dooley, a physician and the founder of Face Kids’ Cancer, stood up and addressed the crowd. “Please don’t feel sorry for me,” he pleaded. “Get angry. Get involved. Demand better funding for childhood cancer research.”

I want the world to see that these families are real, that they are local, and that most of all, these families need our help. This month, and always, please don’t just feel sorry for children battling pediatric cancer. Get mad at the realities these kids face. Then do something, because you can.

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Rape Culture – Featured on NBC’s TODAY and the Washington Post

Last year, I wrote an essay with Dr. Jennifer Sager about parenting against rape culture for The Washington Post.  

We explained:

There is no way to inoculate our children from becoming victims or perpetrators of rape. But parents can help their children recognize and avoid the erroneous and harmful attitudes surrounding sex, power, control, and coercion. Teach children to respect their bodies, instincts, and emotions. At the same time, give them tools to recognize and respect the same thing in others. Perhaps by doing so, we can shift the dialog and begin to create a culture that fosters healthy boundaries and ends all forms sexual violence.

The essay was shared widely on social media this week, and we were interviewed on the topic by NBC’s TODAY. A link to the article, written by Allison Slater Tate, with our quotes on the topic can be viewed here.

“After the past week’s focus on the sexual assault case at Stanford, Steinberg said it is crucial that parents acknowledge that rape culture does exist and the part that parents can play in fighting it. ‘We owe it to our children to shift this culture,’ she said. ‘We all want our children to enter adulthood armed with the best tools to steer their life’s course.'”

How to parent against rape culture (for one thing, start young) — First published in the Washington Post

co authored by Dr. Jennifer Sager, Ph.D.

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This post was first published in The Washington Post.

In the news, we’ve recently been bombarded with outrageous examples of male dominance, sexual control and coercion, and the objectification of women in very public forums. For example, a fraternity was recently suspended in Virginia after hanging a sign off their front porch that read, “Hope your baby girl is ready for a good time.”

On Facebook, an accused rapist wrote, “women are not people god just put them here for mans entertainment [sic].”

And Bill Cosby nonchalantly discussed his abuse of women in an interview surrounding his recent sex abuse scandal.

Rape Culture is a term coined to explain the very public and often pervasive attitudes in society that highlight coercion and control as central to a culture where sexual objectification exists. And while many parents discuss with older children and teens how to improve their safety in this culture, families are often silent about these issues during the early stages of childhood development. Yet it is during this crucial period that parents can give children the most effective tools to recognize these high risk attitudes in society.

By incorporating the following lessons into daily life, parents can empower their children to understand and regulate their emotions, responses, and reactions, and can teach their children to appreciate these same feelings in others.

1. Teach children that all emotions are important and should be respected. Children must be allowed to cry, to sulk, and to be disappointed. When we rescue children rapidly (with promises of candy or another present), we rob them of the opportunity to learn how to accept these feelings. By doing so, we also demonstrate that we, as the parents, are uncomfortable with our natural range of emotions.

2. When you say no, mean it and don’t backtrack. It’s well documented that inconsistent parenting can exacerbate a child’s behavior problems, but it also means the child does not develop the self-soothing skills needed to accept disappointment. In that same vein, allow your child to occasionally say no, and in those instances, allow your child to stand firm. When a younger child wants to play a game with her sister and the sister wants to play alone, it is tempting to require the older child to share with her younger sibling. But by doing so consistently, this teaches the older child that she needs to change her mind and ignore her own needs as she instead focuses on pleasing someone else. This also misses an opportunity to teach the younger child how to cope when things don’t go her way.

3. Allow children to backtrack. And when you backtrack (as parents inevitably will do), use it as a learning opportunity to teach children that we all have the right to change our minds. It may sound counter-intuitive, but think about it. Imagine packing everything up in the car, finally paying and getting into the ice skating rink, lacing up the skates, and hearing your child say “I don’t want to skate.” Our initial thought would probably be to feel exasperated. We might reasonably think, “I took all this time to get us here. You begged to come here! I paid for your skates. Last time you enjoyed it.” But 10 years from now, as parents, we hope that our daughter’s date respects her feelings if she changes her mind about sexual activity. If your child changes his or her mind about something, respect your child’s instincts and encourage your child to talk about these thoughts and feelings. In the end, your instruction as the parent must prevail, but use these scenarios as opportunities to foster your child’s intuition and to teach your child how to appropriately be heard and respected.

4. Recognize sexual objectification. Do not engage in body shaming. Learn to recognize instances when advertising makes a woman’s (or man’s) body into an object. Discuss this reality with your children and encourage them to think about people’s thoughts and feelings when they see images in the media and other outlets.

There is no way to inoculate our children from becoming victims or perpetrators of rape. But parents can help their children recognize and avoid the erroneous and harmful attitudes surrounding sex, power, control, and coercion. Teach children to respect their bodies, instincts, and emotions. At the same time, give them tools to recognize and respect the same thing in others. Perhaps by doing so, we can shift the dialog and begin to create a culture that fosters healthy boundaries and ends all forms sexual violence.

School Discipline: Standing Up for All Children in the Public School System

Two kindergartners were sent to the principal’s office during their second week of school. One hit a little girl after she refused to share a toy. The other smacked a little boy after he cut to the front in the lunch line.

At the principal’s office, each child was asked what happened in their respective confrontations. Both admitted they used their hands, and both knew they were in the wrong. As would happen in many American schools, both boys were issued two-day suspensions.

One child, Bobby, had been removed from his parents’ care and lived with a foster family. The other child, Sam, lived with his parents, both college educated and involved at the school.

That evening, Bobby received a brief lecture from his foster mother. He was sent to his room early, and the next morning he spent the day at his social worker’s office, watching television and playing video games, as his foster mother could not take off work to stay home with him. A week after the incident, Bobby’s regular social worker received an official letter from the school board, notifying her that Bobby’s suspension was now a part of his educational record. Next year, his new teacher would learn of the incident before even meeting Bobby. If Bobby one day applied to a magnet program, the admissions committee would not only consider his grades but would also review his disciplinary record.

Sam’s parents also took a stern tone with him that night, refused his request for dessert and sent him to bed early. Later that evening, their anger shifted away from their son, and they became outraged at the school’s disciplinary policy.

How could a kindergartner, yet to have taken a spelling test or bring home a report card, now have a permanent disciplinary record?

How could a school system create a policy that sets young children up to face such serious consequences for developmentally normal early childhood behaviors?

The next morning, Sam’s father made an appointment to speak with the school’s principal. At the meeting, he acknowledged that his son was in the wrong. Sam’s father suggested other options, like not letting Sam attend the school’s ice cream social, asking that Sam meet with the guidance counselor, or requiring his son to stay inside during recess for a few days. The principal agreed to the father’s request. She decided to change Sam’s punishment. The principal tore up the suspension paperwork and instead required Sam to miss a week’s worth of recess and to meet with the guidance counselor during his classroom’s monthly ice cream party.

A young school boy is standing with a book bag and looking at school buses in the background.

Because of his father’s intervention, Sam no longer had a disciplinary record. His first grade teacher would never hear of the incident. If Sam applied to a magnet program, it would be as if it never even happened.

The dichotomy of Sam’s time-out and counseling compared to Bobby’s suspension and permanent record might seem appalling, but these sorts of inequities occur in schools across the country every day. Clearly, Sam benefited from his parents having the skills, time, and motivation to challenge the status quo. But not all children have the benefit of confident, involved parents to help them navigate in the public school system.

Generally, parental involvement in a child’s school life decreases behavioral problems and enhances student achievement. While children living with family members may benefit from their support, children in foster care are at a significant disadvantage due to the transitional nature of foster care and the large caseloads of social workers. In addition to the difficulties foster care workers confront, researchers at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found that, “foster parents and child welfare caseworkers alike often do not feel empowered or times are not available to advocate for a child to be reinstated in school or receive necessary services.”

While one might be quick to point the finger at Sam’s father for “giving him an easy way out,” it could be argued that a five-year-old is more likely to feel the weight of a missed ice cream party than a day home from school. Unlike suspensions, which do little to stop repeated episodes of misbehavior, effective behavioral modifications reduce referrals to administrator offices which benefits a child’s academic performance. Though a child might not mind missing a day of school, research shows that suspending children actually has lasting, harmful effects.

Early childhood is a time for children to develop their social skills and gain respect for the educational process. Frustrating this process, suspension stigmatizes a child and “may also delay or interfere with the process of identifying and addressing underlying issues, which may include disabilities or mental health issues.” Unlike counseling or the disappointment of missing recess, suspension does little to address the underlying problematic behavior, like hitting another child in response to a stressful situation.

Many organizations are stepping up efforts to help foster children succeed in school. Volunteer Guardian ad Litems and Court Appointed Special Advocates speak on behalf of children both in court and in the school system. Many states have created laws allowing for the appointment of special educational surrogates to represent foster children and other at-risk youth. Similarly, some school districts train community members to serve as both mentors and advocates for all at-risk students.

These are great bandages to solve the problem of inequity in our school systems, but the permanent solution must lie in changing the landscape of school discipline in public education. Sam’s father wasn’t wrong in advocating on behalf of his son. As a parent and child welfare attorney, I also advocate for my own children (both biological and court appointed) in the same individualized manner. However, I recognize that true change will come not as the result of advocacy for the select few. Perhaps we can all resolve to not only look out for our own when faced with an antiquated or unfair policy but instead take these opportunities to engage policymakers in a meaningful discussion that could improve the lives of all children in our public school system.

This post was previously published on the Huffington Post blog.

Stacey is a law professor, mom, photographer, and attorney ad litem. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

6 Tools to Help Protect Children from Sexual Abuse

Co-authored by Jennifer Sager, Ph.D.

Child welfare professionals were not surprised to learn that sexual abuse occurred in the Duggar home. With nineteen children (and counting), the odds suggested that at least a fifth of the children in the home would experience sexual abuse in their lifetime. The first sign of sexual abuse was a tragic occurrence. The multiple acts that followed were an outrage, and likely, those multiple acts could have been stopped
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When we (Stacey Steinberg, J.D. and Jennifer Sager, Ph.D.) introduce ourselves to teachers and other parents, questions about our careers and backgrounds often result in awkward pauses followed by intense conversation. As child advocates having working with both victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse, parents often ask us, “What can I do to keep my child safe?”

In light of the Duggar abuse scandal, protecting children from sexual abuse is on many parents’ minds. Avoiding all risk is unlikely, but there are steps parents can take to minimize their child’s risk of sexual abuse. These tools will also help children get help if victimization occurs.

    1. Accept that sexual abuse is prevalent. 1 in 662,000 children will become an Olympic athlete. 1 in 2,872 children will become a doctor. 1 out of every 4 girls and 1 out of every 6 boys will be sexually abused. Put down the STEM kit and stop obsessing about finding the perfect pair of running shoes. Realize that the best thing you can do to help your child succeed is prioritize his or her safety.
    2. Know that in about 93% of sexual abuse cases, the child knows the abuser. Stranger is not the real danger. The abuser is typically a family member, a babysitter, a coach, or a teacher. Although most of the abuse is done by men, females also sexually abuse. This is typically where parents get scared. “Who can I trust?” It’s important to evaluate everyone in your child’s life. And to continue to evaluate as time passes. There are some people who are attracted only to young children. There are some that will only be attracted once your child has hit puberty. Just because someone was safe, doesn’t mean they are always going to be safe.
    3. Name the body parts. Butt, vagina, vulva, penis. Using cute names tells children that those areas are funny and that you, as the parent, are uncomfortable talking about those parts of their body. Plus, it doesn’t help when a little girl tells her teacher “Uncle Johnny licked my cookie” when she means her vagina area. When we give a child proper vocabulary, we give her tools to get help when she needs it.
  1. Teach body awareness. When a child cries over a cut on his finger don’t say, “You are fine, don’t worry about it.” If we minimize his feelings, we teach the child that we know his body better than he does. Acknowledge his pain. When he cries, say, “that hurts, but it will get better.” Stop what you are doing and connect with the child, so that he knows you will listen when he needs you.
  2. Talk about body safety. When you are tickling your child and she says “stop,” stop. She might obviously want you to continue. She might even scoot her body over towards you. Say, “stop means stop. And no means no. When you are ready for me to tickle again, just ask.” Allow her to ask before continuing the tickling. This teaches a child that she is in control of her body.
  3. The last tip is a big one for us. Remove the word Secret from your child’s vocabulary. A Secret is something that is kept hidden forever. A Surprise is a gift or event, which is revealed at a certain time. It is always eventually told. Use words like Hidden, Mystery, Private, Surprise, Confidential, or Super Agent (instead of secret agent). There are no “good secrets” or “bad secrets.” Tell your children that families can have surprises, but no secrets.

The terrifying reality is that there isn’t a surefire way to protect your child from sexual abuse. Despite using all the tools, someone can still hurt your child. However, by being aware and talking to your child, you can help protect your child and decrease the risk of sexual abuse.

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To report child sexual abuse, call the National Child Sexual Abuse hotline at 1-866-FOR-LIGHT (866-367-5444) or for immediate help, dial 9-1-1.


The information contained in this article is for general knowledge and should not be a substitute for professional medical or legal advice.

To the Heroes Advocating on Behalf of Children

Dear Child Advocate,

I remember him as if we met yesterday. Johnny, not even six months old, sat on my lap and giggled as I finished getting together my court documents. I was a young attorney for Florida’s Department of Children and Families, learning how to navigate the complexities of child welfare. Johnny had bruises on his body, his runny nose had crusted over, and he was filthy. I wanted to drop everything and scrub away his despair.

Something in me changed that day.

Before becoming a law professor, before starting my photography business, before blogging, I had one “job” other than motherhood. I was a child welfare attorney, working alongside child advocates just like you. I worked with men and women who, on a daily basis, risked their own safety and sacrificed their own personal needs to protect abused and neglected children in my community. We worked as a team, but it was not until a social worker got sick and asked me to watch Johnny that I realized that while I led the fight in the courtroom, the real heroes led the fight on the ground.

The concerned citizen who calls in an abuse report. The social worker who brings a child to safety. The foster parent who answers phone calls in the middle of the night. The therapist who heals the broken heart. The doctor who fixes the broken bone. The nurse who provides nutrition to the neglected belly. The schoolteacher who provides continuity during a time of great upheaval. The volunteer who collects Christmas presents and advocates through philanthropic service. The adoptive parent who gives a child a forever home.

A social worker made the brave and necessary decision to remove Johnny from his parents earlier that morning. That evening, a foster mother would wash his tattered clothes. Tomorrow, a volunteer might agree to serve as his Guardian ad Litem.

I know caring for abused and neglected children is a thankless calling. Child welfare professionals only get attention when things go wrong. The day-to-day victories often go unnoticed.

Please remember that you change lives every single day. You see things most ‘regular people’ pretend don’t exist. You nurture broken hearts by day and fall asleep at night wishing only that you could have done more. You give everything you have to mend the pieces of shattered lives and then awaken the following morning to do it again.

Before going to court, I looked into Johnny’s big brown eyes. I felt the warmth of his skin and was touched by his beautiful gaze. He chewed on my suit jacket and smiled at me. And he broke my heart. Not just because his life was already harder than any I could imagine, and only in part because his future would likely be filled with challenges, but because I knew that as much as I wanted to save and protect Johnny, tomorrow another Johnny would need me, and I would have to shift my focus away from this precious life. I felt a weight on my shoulders and an ache in my heart. I gently placed Johnny on the blanket next to my desk and prepared his court documents.

That day, I provided comfort to Johnny. The following morning, I successfully advocated on his behalf. But by the following week, my focus shifted away from him. Another child needed my attention. Johnny’s life was no longer in my hands.

My favorite author, Brian Andreas, whimsically says, “Anyone can slay a dragon…but try waking up every morning & loving the world all over again. That’s what takes a real hero.” You are on the front lines slaying dragons every day. You go to bed each night like a warrior, and you wake up each morning ready to fight yet another battle.

Thank you for loving the world so much that you are willing to wake up tomorrow and protect yet another child, even at the expense of your own heartache. You are not only my hero, but you are a hero for all the Johnnys I’ve ever met.

With my deepest respect and gratitude,
Stacey