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Check Out Shari Shink’s Story

Today we’d like to introduce you to Shari Shink. 

Hi Shari, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
I am an attorney and founder of the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center (RMCLC), the first non-profit law firm for abused and neglected children in CO. During my leadership over 30 years, I helped transform the lives of thousands of children while fighting for critical public policy reforms and raising millions of dollars to serve these children. As a litigator, I learned that “the best interests of a child” is a nebulous standard. It can change from one caseworker to another, and one judge to another. The parental rights of those who harm their children often eclipse the rights of the vulnerable, traumatized children who are their victims. 

I began my career in Pittsburgh, PA, in a legal services organization managed by a progressive leader who believed children, too, should have effective lawyers. I practiced law there before 3 juvenile court judges, each of whom bent over backwards to make the right things happen for kids. As a result of my work in PGH, I was recruited to run a federal demonstration project in CO, and though it was a temporary assignment, I stayed. 

I started the Children’s Legal Clinic (later renamed the RMCLC) because as I sat in a courtroom, I heard about the unspeakable harms to a 2-year-old child, where those responsible for speaking up for him, said nothing. This heartbreaking conspiracy of silence forged my path forward. 

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall, and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
The work of all of the stakeholders in the child welfare system is incredibly difficult. Whether caseworkers, lawyers, or judges, they have too many cases, too few resources, and often, inadequate training and supervision. There is little sense of urgency, so despite laws that mandate time frames for permanent families, permanence eludes them. Children desperate for a permanent family might live in a foster home for years, only to be uprooted and to be replaced with “family,” long after such a placement is right, or appropriate for them. To make the work manageable, “catchwords” and “formulas” replace the heart-wrenching, time-consuming assessment of facts, and the compelling recognition of harm to the child, first in their birth family, and then in the system. The delays, the uncertainty, and the many pro forma efforts to give birth parents multiple chances to be rehabilitated, always at the expense of the children, defy common sense. Children are often uprooted repeatedly, separated from their siblings, denied the mental health treatment critical to their healing, and suffer educational losses that can rarely be recaptured. This compelling life’s work has been a long and difficult journey of unspeakable sadness and unimaginable joy. I do not regret the time I spent; I believed it to be my calling. 

My decades of work in this “broken” system inspired the founding of Cobbled Streets in 2020, a non-profit organization to provide life-changing experiences, enriching opportunities, and enduring relationships for children in foster care. By ensuring the healthy growth and development of children in foster care, we can celebrate small successes and eliminate the pipeline from foster care to homelessness. Children need choices in their lives, particularly when they have no choice over who their parents are and whether they live in a safe and loving home. They need choices so they can heal, to engage with peers and mentors, to learn things, and to discover not only who they are at a given moment, but to dream about who they can become. Our hope is to ease their pain, enrich their lives, and build their resilience for the future. 

My journey was not a smooth one. Perhaps cobbled streets best characterizes the road I walked, as I sought to serve the children who walked beside me. Children in foster care are often asked to travel a rough and often treacherous terrain. A cobbled street filled with dangerous crevices, slippery slopes, and dark and unfamiliar places. It is a journey of profound trauma and challenge. This journey can be much less frightening if someone leads the way, holds their hands, and helps when they fall. 

There were many challenges, the greatest of these were, and continue to be, lack of awareness among the public and the leadership of the plight of children in foster care; lack of courage among those charged with insuring good outcomes for children; complacency; and the lack of common sense. 

The public and our leadership often know little of the suffering of foster children. The need for confidentiality keeps the failings of the system “behind closed doors” and otherwise knowledgeable citizens assume that everyone is doing the best they can. The media needs to put a face to a crisis, which is not often possible, and the crisis of foster care is ever-present, unlike a pandemic or natural disaster. Research suggests that those who work within the system are often overwhelmed, dispirited, and, as a result, immobilized. They suffer the shame of knowing they should do more, and some resort to cynicism just to survive. 

Child abuse and its consequences impact all of us. When children do not receive the help, the treatment, and the families they deserve, we lose many of them to the mental health system, the criminal justice system, and to the cold, hard, and lonely streets. We know better, and we should do better. 

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
I am an attorney, though attorneys for children must be unique, a hybrid, recognizing the important differences of child-clients, and accepting a higher responsibility than just solving a discreet legal issue, but rather, changing a life. 

As an Executive Director of a non-profit, I have had to function as a business person and be a good steward of finances and capital, while soliciting donations from “investors” who have no expectation of “return, “only the satisfaction of making a difference to a cause, or a special population. 

As a creative professional, I have been compelled/inspired to develop unique programs that address the holistic needs of children, and better approaches to engage volunteers and inspire donors to contribute their time and talents. 

I have specialized in the legal representation and advocacy of abused and neglected children. I am known locally and nationally for my bold and creative approaches to serving kids and to inspiring cutting-edge public policy change. I was inducted into the CO Women’s Hall of Fame, not only for my work but for my leadership and mentoring of thousands of youth, law students, and women across this nation. I am most proud of the children’s lives I have changed and the hope and possibility I have created for them. 

What sets me apart is my tenacity, courage, and fearlessness. It is surprising how unwilling are the very well-meaning and hard-working professionals who have a critical role to play for children, and yet refuse to insist on what’s right, while ignoring facts and common sense. It is not comfortable to take an unpopular position when to do so might offend someone in power, or risk a favored position with the government or courts. Maintaining the status quo, not “rocking the boat,” and taking the path of least resistance, will rarely get one in trouble. 

Can you talk to us a bit about the role of luck?
I have been “lucky” or perhaps blessed, by the thousands of generous donors, volunteers, and staff that I have had the pleasure of knowing and partnering with on this daunting journey. I could not have done it without them. I have certainly been blessed by the thousands of children who trusted me, and invited me into their lives so that together we could create a more positive trajectory for them. 

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Image Credits
Cobbled Streets

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