On a Mission to Improve Utah’s Foster Care System

Twelve children. Four grandchildren. Forty foster children. Over the last 14 years, Lucy Walbeck has devoted her time and energy to raising an ever-growing family. In May 2020, she added a new number: one bachelor’s degree from Utah Valley University. 

It wasn’t her first college graduation. Three decades ago, Lucy graduated with an associate degree from Snow College with what she says were average grades. She was young, unfocused, and falling in love with her soon-to-be husband, who was also attending Snow.

“We started our family after we finished school and had three sons,” she says. “But then we experienced secondary infertility, which was a heartbreaking challenge for me.”

Lucy didn’t realize it then, but this challenge would eventually lead to her life’s calling. She and her husband decided to adopt and soon welcomed two children into the family. Then, she got pregnant and had another biological son, bringing the total to six.

When all six children were old enough to attend school, Lucy found herself at a crossroads that many women face. She thought about going back to college or getting a part-time job. But there was a third option with a great need: fostering children for the state of Utah.

“We signed up, and suddenly we had a lot of little two-year-olds in and out of our home,” she says. “The goal of foster care is always to reunify them with their birth families. There was a big learning curve for me working with the system. It was very frustrating to have caseworkers start, then leave, and then new caseworkers appear. I witnessed how important it is to have consistency in terms of social workers, judges, and other adults serving these kids.”

Despite the challenges, Lucy worked with the state agencies and successfully reunited more than 35 children with their biological parents. 

“Then two little girls came to us,” she says. “They were resilient and happy despite experiencing domestic violence. Their parents were using drugs and unable to repair their lives, so the agency asked us to adopt the sisters.” Shortly after, the birth mother of the girls got pregnant three more times, and Lucy adopted those babies as well.

When the youngest of the new brood entered first grade, Lucy knew what she wanted to do. Ever since she had started learning about the court systems and agencies charged with helping foster children, she had felt she could make an even bigger difference by being a social worker. So she needed to go back to school.

She chose Utah Valley University because it was affordable and had a good program that she knew would prepare her well for a career in the field. She applied for financial aid and scholarships, including the PACE Student Scholarship. “Those funds made the difference,” she says. “Without the extra assistance, I don’t think I would’ve been able to move forward.”

After 31 years away from a classroom, Lucy struggled to keep up with her peers. The last time she had written a paper, she’d used a typewriter. In her first semester, she struggled to attach a document to an email and had to learn APA format again. “But my classmates and colleagues helped me. My teachers helped me; my older children helped me.” She maintained a high GPA of 3.97, much higher than what it was during her Snow College days.

Her final semester this past spring brought new challenges to conquer. Due to the COVID-19 closures at both UVU and area schools, Lucy was studying and taking classes from home alongside her school-aged children. “There were a lot of tears at first, mostly from Mom,” she laughs. “But then we became a team.”

The transition away from learning on campus also stung. “In one day, we lost all our opportunity to be on campus, to connect with each other, to learn from each other. There was a lot of grief and loss. But in this last month, I learned how to telecommute and learned different communication platforms.”

At the same time, Lucy was interning at the Department of Children Services, which led to her new full-time job. Now she uses her education and experience to help others. She understands the complex feelings involved in reunifying a child with a biological parent and also knows the strength of families working to repair their lives, heal, and earn back their children. And of course, she knows how to connect to the kids. “The entire process is hard, but that’s what resilience is all about — using the challenges, disappointments, and struggles to become better every day.”