OGDEN -- Laurie Walker grieves the loss of three of her seven grandchildren.
The oldest boy is 10, his little brother is almost 3 and the youngest, a girl, turns 2 in March. They are still very much alive, but Walker has not been able to see or speak with them since last August.
"Rightfully I should have those kids," Walker said. "I have passed every background check. They're my grandkids."
Since August 2012, Walker has battled Utah's Department of Child and Family Services to gain custody of the three, who have lived with a foster family since that time.
Walker's daughter, Searra Walker, has battled Crohn's disease her entire life and "was never supposed to be able to have children," Laurie Walker said. "And she's got three amazing, beautiful children."
During the summer of 2012, Searra Walker and her three children became homeless and ended up at St. Anne's shelter. On a hot day in early August, Searra Walker became dehydrated and suffered a medical emergency. She and her children were rushed to McKay-Dee Hospital by ambulance. Searra Walker, who turns 30 this October, said that her large intestine was removed years ago and that she constantly battles fatigue, pain and nausea.
"The day my kids got taken away, there was an officer in the room who said if I didn't sign over my kids, they'd take me to jail," Searra Walker recalled, explaining that the hospital administered pain and anti-nausea medication to her, but police and other authorities were convinced she was an addict.
Laurie Walker said that DCFS called her the next day and told her to come pick up her grandkids at the hospital.
"When I got there, (DCFS) had them all loaded in their vehicle and would not let me take them," Laurie Walker said. She was then told to follow them down to the Christmas Box House so they could run a background check. At the Christmas Box House, she remembers the eldest brother jumping in her car and pleading, "Grandma, please don't let them take us."
At 49, Laurie Walker currently supports herself by waiting tables at the Stagecoach Restaurant in Ogden and also takes care of an older gentleman in exchange for a rent-free room in his home.
Under state law, that housing situation amounts to cohabitation, and DCFS told her she would have to move in order to get her grandkids, something she said she was more than willing to do.
And if she couldn't have the kids, Laurie Walker said she has siblings and other offspring who are willing to take them. None of those options have worked out so far.
Searra Walker's sister in Idaho was working with DCFS to get set up to take the kids, Laurie Walker said, and had even moved her family to a larger house to accommodate the new additions.
"And then all of a sudden, Idaho wanted Utah to pay for all of my oldest grandson's counseling," Laurie Walker said. "Utah said no . . . so that blew all of that."
For a year, Laurie Walker had visitation rights but those vanished this past August after her daughter, under duress, signed over her parental rights and both grandmother and mother were given a final short visit to say goodbye to the three children.
"It's literally killing me that I have bent over backwards," Laurie Walker said, her voice shaking with emotion as she described the many hoops she jumped through in hopes of getting custody or at least reinstating visitation.
Last month, she hired an attorney and petitioned to adopt her grandchildren. Three days later, the foster parents countered with their own petition to adopt.
Her attorney advised her that she didn't stand a chance, she said, so she withdrew her petition but now regrets that action and wants to try again.
She also believes that DCFS dealt unfairly with her and even withheld some of her paperwork from the Juvenile Court judge -- including her kinship documentation that indicated her desire to raise her grandchildren.
"I'm not a criminal, I'm not an addict or an alcoholic," Laurie Walker said. "All I wanted this whole time, if I couldn't have them, is to be their Grandma."
Laurie Walker's brother, Kirk Gough of Bountiful, has watched this drama unfold and said he realizes he's only heard one side of the story.
"It seemed like every time she went in, they asked her to do something else," Gough said, "and something was always wrong and she couldn't get it right for them."
His sister has "had her share of challenges," Gough said, "but I don't have any reason to disrespect or not believe what she tells me."
Searra Walker has had episodes of substance abuse, her mother said. And on top of Crohn's, she recently was diagnosed with cervical cancer and her options appear bleak. Doctors have told her that a hysterectomy, chemotherapy or radiation treatments would kill her, Searra Walker said.
Based on his own parental instincts, Gough said he hoped that DCFS would "choose family first" over foster care and place the three children with a willing relative.
Liz Sollis, communications director for Utah's Department of Human Services, said that DCFS cannot share any information on specific cases due to confidentiality laws.
However, Sollis said that people have avenues they can pursue if they feel their cases are being dealt with unfairly or that their voices are not being heard.
They should start with their case manager, Sollis said, then go to that person's supervisor and even to the region director if problems don't get resolved.
In addition, they could contact Ashley Sumner, the constituent services representative for further help. She can be reached through the DHS main office number, 801-538-4100.
Another option is the Office of Child Protection Ombudsman, which investigates cases that people feel were handled inappropriately.
"Their job is like internal affairs," Sollis said. That office will launch an investigation and make recommendations both to DCFS and the Child Welfare Legislative Oversight Panel.
Members of that committee include Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, Rep. Tim Cosgrove, D-Murray, Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Ronda Rudd Menlove, R-Garland.
"They can also reach out to legislators on that panel," Sollis said. "Many are very familiar with the child welfare process and can dictate change."
Another check and balance is provided by the Office of Services Review within DHS, which conducts audits of random closed cases to make sure they were handled appropriately.
"Our preference is to do a kinship placement whenever possible," Sollis said, noting that family members can undergo training to become certified foster parents. By doing so, they not only get hands-on help, but can also qualify for financial support when they do gain custody.
"When people come into a position where they're taking in minor family members, it's a huge chance," Sollis said. "So this is a great resource for them."
But sometimes there are impediments to placing children with kin, Sollis said.
"We have to make sure that safety is paramount," Sollis said, "and we also have to follow state statute."
Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.