Chance at Childhood

MSU social work, law students team up to support abused and neglected children

When former state Lieutenant Governor Connie Binsfeld awarded MSU the seed money for a “Chance at Childhood” program in 2002, she laid out an ambitious vision:

“Michigan State University, as the nation's premiere land grant university, has the capability and components to bring Michigan citizens into the next century so that every child can live a better and happier life,” she said.

Now in its 15th year, Chance at Childhood has developed into an important force for children’s welfare throughout the region and state. A collaboration between the MSU School of Social Work and MSU College of Law, it has prepared hundreds of professionals to advocate for abused and neglected children and provided direct assistance to thousands of children and families.

“Children need legal advocates who have a holistic understanding of a child's life, in addition to legal expertise. And they need social workers who understand how to work collaboratively with the courts,” said Delanie Pope, staff attorney at Chance at Childhood. “We prepare future professionals who understand both disciplines, who can better meet the needs of children for a safe, healthy and secure environment with a loving, lifetime family.”

Just in the last year, Chance at Childhood students logged some 1,500 hours advocating on behalf of children and families in court-appointed matters, including 13 custody evaluations, 68 guardianship reviews and 140 supervised parenting cases. Social worker-law student teams also represented seven children in court proceedings, assisted about 500 individuals through self-help or office consultations and supervised hundreds of hours of court-ordered parental visits.

One of the court cases involved a grandmother who had been raising her grandson since his birth in 2008 and sought to adopt him. The child’s parents both suffered from long-term substance abuse and ultimately agreed that adoption was in the child’s best interests.

After five semesters of work by Chance at Childhood student teams, the adoption was finalized in May 2016 before the child’s extended family and friends.

“It is rewarding, challenging work,” Pope said.

Nikki Searle, who completed the program in 2016, is now a policy analyst specializing in paternity issues for the state of Michigan’s Office of Child Support.

“Chance at Childhood was my first introduction to family law,” Searle posted recently on the Chance at Childhood Facebook page. “Learning about paternity, parenting time, and custody prior to starting my job gave me a leg-up in that I already had the base knowledge necessary to succeed.”

Chance at Childhood also offers students opportunities to collaborate with community offices and agencies that advocate for children, including the Michigan Court Improvement Program Statewide Taskforce, Michigan Child Death Review Team, Volunteer Advocates of Mid-Michigan, DHS Case Management Work Improvement Team and MI-NASW Social Policy Committee.

Former Lieutenant Governor Binsfeld, who died in 2014, launched Chance at Childhood when her Commission on Children found that the system often failed to provide children with adequate representation.