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Utah child welfare reformer led with intellect, heart, friends say

Gov. Leavitt, others honor life of former human services administrator Robin Arnold-Williams

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SALT LAKE CITY — In the final days of her life, Robin Arnold-Williams' long career in human services public policy came full circle when her hospice nurse brought in her daughter to meet her patient.

The nurse had relocated from Washington state, where Arnold-Williams had served as executive director of the state Department of Social and Health Services.

"It just so happened that we adopted our little girl during that period of time and it was as a result of regulation that Robin had put in place," the nurse told former Gov. Mike Leavitt, who was Arnold-Williams' boss when she held a similar role in Utah state government.

"I introduced her to the person that made it possible for us to be together," said Leavitt, recounting the nurse's story during a memorial service Wednesday at the State Office Building to honor Arnold-Williams.

Arnold-Williams' response?

"That is the reason I love public service so much, that it has such a powerful impact on people," Leavitt said, relating the nurse's story.

Leavitt was among a small group of people who visited Arnold-Williams shortly before she died on Oct. 29, 2017, in Durango, Colorado. She was 61 years old.

Leavitt said he has learned that if you really want to know someone, "go on a 50-mile hike with them."

As executive director of the Utah Department of Human Services, Arnold-Williams went on a number of those hikes with Leavitt, he said.

She played a key role in the reforms of the state's child welfare system in the wake of a class-action lawsuit — David C. v. Leavitt — that challenged Utah practices.

Arnold-Williams led a judicial committee that led to increased public access to certain juvenile court proceedings. She was remembered as a consummate professional who led with compassion and optimism.

Arnold-Williams was born in Flint, Michigan, the youngest of seven children raised by a single mother after her father died while she was elementary school. She earned an undergraduate degree from Central Michigan University and moved west to attend graduate school in Utah.

She earned both her master's degree and doctorate degrees in social work from the University of Utah, where she also received a certificate of gerontology. For more than two decades, she climbed the ladder of the Utah Department of Human Services, ultimately being appointed executive director of the agency by Leavitt. She served in that role about eight years before moving to Washington state.

The celebration of Arnold-Williams' life was part memorial service and part reunion for people who worked with her at government agencies and for private sector colleagues from her more recent work at Leavitt Partners.

Natalie Gochnour, who was communications director during the Leavitt administration, said "Robin gave 100 percent" to every task and project.

"In any meeting with Robin, no one was better prepared. No one had done more homework and nobody contributed more value, and that's saying a lot because she worked with Gov. Mike Leavitt and with Gov. Olene Walker," Gochnour said.

Former state Rep. Trisha Beck said Arnold-Williams helped inform and guide her legislative service. But her introduction to Arnold-Williams came years before when Beck was the young mother of an infant with multiple disabilities. Arnold-Williams became a mentor "and one of my best allies," she said.

Although Arnold-Williams' government service in Utah ended in 2005, her memorial service was well attended by former colleagues, friends and graduate school classmates.

Arnold-Williams was one of youngest students in her graduate program but classmates remembered her as bright student, a friend to all and someone they believed was going places.

"When I met Robin, I always knew she was going to be special and she was going to do great things. I admired her tremendously," said Kathy Manygoats, who met Arnold-Williams in graduate school.

She recalled a trip to Arizona among a small group of social workers to attend the wedding of one of Manygoats' friends. The group traveled at night in three cars, with Arnold-Williams and classmate Marghi Barton in one. The plan was to meet in Moab.

"So we were there and they were somewhere else. They never made it to Moab," Manygoats said.

"So here is this incredibly brilliant woman, two incredibly brilliant women, who didn't know how to read a map. They just chattered and chattered and chattered and were almost in Vegas. The rest of us were sleeping at the arches in a parking lot waiting for them," Manygoats said, the auditorium erupting in laughter.

John Williams, Arnold-Williams' spouse, noted his wife's great love for their Labrador retrievers and the polar bears of northern Manitoba, Canada. She took trips to work with researchers to study the bears in their natural environment, he said.

Williams said as he was hunting for photographs to display at his beloved wife's memorial service, he found hundreds of photographs of their dogs and polar bears.

"I had to go through all the filing cabinets to find pictures of Robin," he said.

One picture of note was a photograph of the two of them on a dog sled in Churchhill, Canada, taken in February 2014 when they traveled there to see the northern lights.

"That's me sitting behind her but you cannot tell because I'm totally covered up because it was 45 degrees below zero. She insisted on sitting in front where she'd watch the dogs, so that's a special picture," Williams said.

"So she had a lot of fun. You all know that and we'll all miss her. We're all glad we knew Robin," Williams said.