Helping hand: Skadden Fellow advocates for disabled Detroit children


Michigan State University College of Law alumna Erin Hankins Diaz (left) is in her second year of a Skadden Fellowship, working at Michigan Protection and Advocacy in Detroit. She is pictured at a Skadden symposium with Monica Macias Andrade, the third MSU Law Skadden Fellow in the past five years.

Photo courtesy of Erin Hankins Diaz

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Before attending Michigan State University College of Law, Erin Hankins Diaz taught for four years at schools in Los Angeles and Chicago. 

“When I left teaching, it was difficult to say goodbye to my students—I remember them asking me when I was going to come back to Chicago to teach again,” she says.

A passion for special education law kept Diaz focused and motivated through three years of law school—and her goal is to join the small number of attorneys in Michigan that represent parents in special education cases.

The second MSU Law graduate in the past five years to be named a Skadden Fellow, Diaz is in her second year of the Fellowship, working at Michigan Protection and Advocacy Services, ensuring the educational needs of children with disabilities from low-income families are met.

While the majority of her young clients attend Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD), she also has clients at the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) and at charter schools.  She also has found valuable mentors at MPAS who are experienced in a variety of areas of law related to individuals with disabilities.

“I enjoy helping parents advocate for their children,” she says. “Many of the parents I work with have little education themselves, but are incredibly dedicated to ensuring their children are successful within the classroom and the world. Students with disabilities sometimes have very serious, challenging behaviors—as a result, they are often suspended repeatedly rather than getting the supports they need. 

“When they receive the supports, the teacher and all of the students in the classroom benefit,” she adds. “I truly believe all children can learn—some just need more support in that endeavor. I love helping create a program for a child that makes learning a reality.”

Diaz, who has set her sights on one day running for public office, was drawn early on to public interest law.

“I love being able to provide legal representation to people who would not be able to afford an attorney,” she says.

At MSU Law, she interned at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office Juvenile Division and Detroit Center for Family Advocacy; spent a semester as a clinician with the Chance at Childhood Clinic; and was a notes editor for Law Review.

“I made some fantastic friends at MSU, and I had brilliant professors who were very invested in my learning and career plans,” she says. 

Her article about Charter Schools Without Choice was published in the Brigham Young Law Review.

“I was very humbled to have my Law Review Note published,” she says. “The convergence of the emergency manager law, public school academy law, and special education laws created a challenge for students with disabilities. When all of the schools in two districts became charter schools, this put children with disabilities at a potential disadvantage. I advocated changing the federal special education law to ensure that charter schools in such a district would not be considered independent when it came to special education law.”

A Cincinnati native, Diaz earned her undergraduate degree in political science and international peace studies, followed by an M.Ed. in curriculum and instruction, both at the University of Notre Dame.

She then spent four years teaching, the first two through Notre Dame’s ACE program in South Los Angeles and the second two in Chicago’s Lincoln Park—two very different ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.

“All of my students were eager to learn and full of energy every day—I enjoyed watching them learn,” she says. “There is something amazing about a child understanding a concept especially if she had been struggling with it previously. Once she understands it then she can explain it to a classmate in a totally different way.”

Although she enjoyed teaching, Diaz notes that it is a very hard and often under-respected profession.

“We expect a lot of teachers without giving them the support they need—financial and otherwise,” she says. “Students come into the classroom each morning, and teachers don’t know what the evening before or the morning was like for them.
“However, a teacher is there to teach children to become good citizens and good people. When explaining to others how challenging teaching could be, I used to describe myself as starring in a one-woman improv play attempting to entertain an unwilling audience with subjects like grammar or geometry. It was emotionally and physically exhausting.”

In her experience, schools functioned best when newer teachers had mentors they could observe and who could observe them, so they could see what effective teaching looks like.

“I found it helpful to have an experienced teacher to give me feedback and bounce ideas off of,” she says. “I remember being frustrated that I could not control what was happening to my students before and after school—I could only control the academic experience and the support that I could give them in the classroom.”

Diaz notes that public schools are a common good and need to be adequately funded.

“When it comes to education, equity is essential—some schools will need more money per student to operate due to the student population.

“It is imperative that we invest in our children now to prepare them to be active, effective, contributing citizens when they grow up. Funding is a necessary component to a good education, but it’s not sufficient. We need to start treating teachers like professionals, ensuring they are paid like professionals and receive ongoing training, so they can educate our children.”

Diaz and her husband make their home in Novi, with their 16-month-old son.

“Between my family and my work, I don’t have a lot of time for outside hobbies,” she says. “Right now, chasing a toddler around the house and reading picture books top the list. However, I enjoy watching movies and eating at new restaurants, and I’m involved in my parish.”