crime

What We Know About the Mommy Vlogger Accused of Child Abuse

Jodi Hildebrandt (left) and Ruby Franke (right). Photo: KUTV 2 News Salt Lake City/Youtube

Utah mommy vlogger Ruby Franke was once best known for her now-defunct YouTube channel, 8Passengers, on which she documented family life with her husband and their six children. Then, in December, she pleaded guilty to four counts of aggravated child abuse. News of Franke’s guilty plea came roughly three months after she and her business partner, Jodi Hildebrandt, were arrested and slapped with a suite of charges after Franke’s malnourished 12-year-old son escaped from a window of Hildebrandt’s home and showed up at a neighbor’s door asking for food and water. The neighbor called police, who, in their affidavit, later described the boy as emaciated. He allegedly had open wounds on his body and duct-tape wounds around his ankles and wrists. Investigators also found Franke’s 10-year-old daughter in Hildebrandt’s home, similarly malnourished. According to police, both children appeared to be in her direct care with Franke’s knowledge.

At the time, the children were taken to the hospital and put under the care of Utah’s Department of Child and Family Services, along with their two minor siblings. Franke and Hildebrandt, meanwhile, were initially charged with six counts each of felony child abuse.

In a statement following the arrests, the Washington County Attorney’s Office in Utah accused both women of “causing or permitting serious injury” to the children via “a combination of multiple physical injuries or torture, starvation or malnutrition that jeopardizes life, and causing severe emotional harm,” crimes that carry up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000 per count. KUTV reports that two of Franke’s charges were dropped as a result of her plea agreement. But viewers of 8Passengers had accused Franke of child abuse long before she was taken into custody, citing cruel parenting techniques like withholding food as punishment. News of Franke’s arrest last year was met with relief from her sisters, fellow parenting influencers Ellie Mecham, Julie Griffiths Deru, and Bonnie Hoellein, who said in a joint Instagram statement that the arrests “needed to happen.” Franke’s eldest and estranged daughter, Shari, shared a similar sentiment on social media. “Finally,” she wrote via Instagram Story on August 30 after her mom’s arrest, per Insider. “Me and my family are so glad justice is being served.”

As part of the plea agreement, CBS News reports that Franke agreed to testify against Hildebrandt. “We are pleased that Ms. Franke has accepted responsibility for her criminal actions and that justice is being served to the extent possible in this type of situation,” Washington County Attorney Eric Clarke said in a statement after Franke’s guilty plea. Below, everything we know.

Ruby Franke’s strict parenting on 8Passengers has raised allegations of child abuse in the past.

Franke launched 8Passengers in 2015 and used her channel to chronicle life with her husband, Kevin Franke, a former engineering professor at Brigham Young University, along with the couple’s six children: Shari, Chad, Abby, Julie, Russell, and Eve. Franke used her platform to discuss parenting and share snippets of everyday activities, including driving with her kids and footage of family dinners. But viewers have long suspected the vlogger of something more nefarious. Allegations that Franke was abusing her children circulated widely in 2020, when Chad revealed he’d had his bedroom taken away for playing pranks on his brother and had been sleeping on a beanbag chair for seven months as punishment. Some videos show Franke penalizing her kids by withholding food; others show her threatening them with “losing the privilege” of eating dinner and arguing that her 6-year-old daughter should go hungry because she forgot to bring her packed lunch to school, per the Post. A TikTok of archival 8Passengers footage that circulated after Franke’s arrest shows her ordering her children and nephews to “get in line” to eat a single banana. “I love that I can talk to my nephews that way,” Franke can be heard saying.

In 2020, thousands of 8Passengers viewers signed an online petition calling for an investigation into Franke, prompting a child protective services visit. Business Insider reports the case was closed because the claims were unsupported. “What people aren’t understanding is that we give our children choice in everything,” Franke told the outlet in an interview at the time, pushing back against the allegations and accusing naysayers of taking videos out of context. Franke ultimately stopped posting videos to 8Passengers after further allegations of mistreatment from viewers. The channel had over 2 million subscribers before it was deleted in 2023.

Following the 8Passengers fallout, Ruby Franke joined Jodi Hildebrandt’s “cult”-like venture, ConneXions.

After the backlash against 8Passengers, Franke began working with Hildebrandt, a life coach and counselor, for her platform, ConneXions. The site–slash–YouTube channel advertised itself as a “support group” for moms that helps “treat those lost in the darkness of a distortion,” and Franke signed on as a mental-health coach. The two frequently appeared together in ConneXion videos, advertised parenting classes, and ran the joint Instagram account Moms of Truth. Some critics labeled that venture a “cult” for its damaging and authoritarian teachings: directives that parents shouldn’t love their children unconditionally, for example, and a theory that children do not deserve privacy. Per Insider, the two women also used the platform to spew racist, ableist, and transphobic remarks.

Additionally, the Salt Lake Tribune reports that the Utah Clinical Mental Health Counselor Licensing Board put Hildebrandt, a “porn addiction” therapist, on an 18-month probation in 2012, after she allegedly discussed a patient’s case file with Mormon church elders without his permission. YouTube took ConneXions down after the women’s arrests.

Both Ruby Franke and Jodi Hildebrandt are currently in custody.

Arrest records obtained by CBS News state Franke’s 12-year-old son was put on medical hold “due to deep lacerations from being tied up with rope,” and a police statement indicates that a search of Hildebrandt’s home found evidence “consistent with the markings” on the boy’s body. Both women were denied bail and remain in custody owing to the “severity of the injuries” inflicted upon Franke’s two children. Per the Post, the police officer who responded to the incident said in an affidavit that Franke recorded a video in Hildebrandt’s home two days before the arrest, suggesting she was aware of the “abuse, malnourishment, and neglect” taking place there. An attorney for Kevin Franke attempted to distance himself from the abuse allegations, claiming he is “distraught” over them and has lived separately from his wife for the past 13 months.

“We’ve been trying to tell the police and CPS for years about this, and so glad they finally decided to step up,” Shari Franke wrote on her Instagram Story, per the New York Times. “Kids are safe, but there’s a long road ahead.”

Following the arrests, neighbors claimed they had been trying to get authorities involved for months.

Police reports appear to back up Shari’s claims: According to NBC, both she and a neighbor called 911, asking officers to check on the children. Shari apparently told the operator that she was concerned about her siblings’ health and safety, while the neighbor reported that Franke was leaving her kids home alone for days at a time. In a separate conversation with NBC, an unnamed neighbor claimed that multiple adults in the community had been trying to get the Utah Division of Child and Family Services involved for over a year, having noticed Franke’s long absences. “I’m really angry, because I spoke up. Other people spoke up,” she said. “If people knew the amount of tears and time spent talking with law enforcement and CPS over the last year — I want people to understand that. And I want those kids to know that, because I think they thought they were abandoned.”

The Springville Police Department told NBC that officers did show up at Franke’s home to investigate, but their attempts — and attempts by the Department of Child and Family Services — to contact the kids proved unsuccessful because the kids wouldn’t come to the door.

At a shelter hearing in September, Ruby Franke attempted to divert blame to her minor children, alleging that one of them is sexually abusive.

On September 7, Franke video-conferenced into a shelter hearing from a Utah jail to determine custody of her four minor children. In an exclusive, the Daily Mail reported that Franke used that time to deflect blame for her alleged behavior onto her kids. She claimed that one had confessed to abusing 20 other children, including a sibling, cousins, and neighbors. Franke did not provide evidence for her allegations, but according to the Mail, Judge Suchada Bazelle told the courtroom that Franke’s purportedly abusive child would need to be “placed in a home with no other children.” In October, Bazelle ordered the custody case closed to the public, saying in a statement that the court could not provide a fair and impartial process without “adequate safeguards to shield the children from the intrusive effects of media coverage” related to the case.

Ruby Franke and Jodi Hildebrandt have allegedly suffered “medical issues” while in jail.

According to jail records, which People purportedly viewed, both Franke and Hildebrandt were transferred out of general population and placed under medical observation shortly after being detained. Franke allegedly moved to the observation block on September 8, only to return to her usual place later on in the weekend, while Hildebrandt’s attorney claimed in court filings that she “experienced a life-threatening medical issue resulting in her hospitalization for several days.” It’s not immediately clear what may have happened, though Hildebrandt’s lawyer used her supposed malady to lobby for an expedited detention hearing.

Jodi Hildebrandt’s niece came forward, accusing her aunt of “severe emotional, spiritual, and psychological abuse.”

After Ruby Franke’s shelter hearing, Jessi Hildebrandt, Jodi Hildebrandt’s niece, came forward to Salt Lake City–based news station KUTV and shared their own experiences living with their aunt over a decade ago. Jessi, who uses they/them pronouns, alleged that the self-styled life coach subjected them to “severe emotional, spiritual, and psychological abuse” and accused them of being a “sex/porn addict, addicted to masturbation.” They also said the “therapy” Jodi administered to them included barring them from using tampons or having privacy in the bathroom.

“She wanted to make my life so uncomfortable that it would force sin out … this continuously got worse and worse,” Jessi said, accusing Hildebrandt of duct-taping their mouth, blindfolding them, and telling them they were too “dangerous to be around” other people, resulting in isolation periods of up to 12 hours a day. Jessi said they internalized their aunt’s teachings to the point that they became afraid of themself. “I was forced to sleep outside in the snow,” they recalled. “If someone spoke to me directly, if I wasn’t wearing duct tape on my mouth, I had to just stare at them and not respond.”

Jessi also noted that Jodi has had support from the Mormon church even though people have spoken out against her: “We have a culture of not believing children and not trusting children. Children trust their parents and the parents trust the church.”

In her plea agreement, Ruby Franke admitted to smothering her son underwater.

The disgraced momfluencer confessed to a slew of abuses against her children — including binding her son’s feet with handcuffs, kicking him wearing boots, and holding his head underwater while smothering his mouth and nose — in a plea agreement obtained by CBS News. Franke had attempted to persuade her son that he was “evil and possessed” and could avoid punishment by obeying her, evidently telling him the abuses she inflicted upon him were “acts of love,” according to the agreement.

Franke also admitted to committing similar abuses against her 9-year-old daughter, forcing her to run barefoot on dirt roads and perform manual labor outdoors without adequate food and water. In December, a lawyer for Franke claimed in court that the abuse was influenced by a relationship counselor who had contributed to her “distorted sense of morality” — an apparent reference to Hildebrandt.

Franke appeared in court on December 18 shackled and wearing white-and-gray jail clothing as she pleaded guilty to her first three charges, according to KUTV. “With my deepest regret and sorrow for my family and my children, guilty,” she said in response to her fourth charge.

Ruby Franke has been sentenced to up to 60 years in prison

In February, Franke received a sentence of up to 60 years in prison, with each of her four counts of aggravated child abuse carrying a one-to-15-year sentence. Utah uses indeterminate sentencing, meaning that after one year in prison the rest of her sentence will be determined by the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole. Hildebrandt received the same sentence.

This article has been updated.

What We Know About the Mommy Vlogger Accused of Child Abuse