Utah’s ‘free-range parenting’ law supposedly kept child services from helping Ruby Franke’s kids, neighbor says

“Several of us tried to help,” the neighbor said.

(Utah 5th District Court) Ruby Franke makes an appearance in 5th District Court in St. George, Friday, Sept. 8., 2023. Franke and her business partner each face six felony counts of aggravated child abuse.

At least twice last year, a Springville woman spoke with child welfare officials because she was worried about YouTuber Ruby Franke’s kids being home alone for extended periods — but, the neighbor told The Salt Lake Tribune, staffers of Utah Division of Child and Family Services told her there was nothing they could do.

An agency employee, she said, specifically cited Utah’s landmark “free-range parenting” law, passed to ensure child neglect statutes don’t block kids from playing outside unattended or being home alone. Children need to be old enough for that independence, the law emphasizes, and they still must be adequately cared for and fed.

But the DCFS staffer said the law meant the agency could not pursue any action unless a child left alone was injured, the neighbor said. She provided voicemail and text message records documenting her interactions with DCFS, sharing her concern that the Franke children were being neglected.

Franke and her business partner, Jodi Hildebrandt, were arrested Aug. 30 on six felony counts each of aggravated child abuse after Franke’s 12-year-old son escaped Hildebrandt’s Ivins home. A neighbor called police because the boy was malnourished and had duct tape on his ankles and wrists, charging documents state.

Responding officers said they then found Franke’s 10-year-old daughter malnourished inside Hildebrandt’s home. The two children were taken to a hospital for medical treatment, court documents said. They and two of Franke’s other children have since been placed in DCFS custody.

The Franke family home is located more than 250 miles north of Ivins, in Springville, court documents indicate. The Tribune is not identifying the Springville neighbor who contacted DCFS, to protect her family’s privacy. However, she has been named in police records and The Tribune verified her identity.

Though DCFS declined to release any reports connected to Ruby Franke, the neighbor said at least one other Springville neighbor reported being concerned about the children, because a DCFS official referenced that separate report to the first neighbor in a follow-up conversation.

Police records also show Franke’s oldest daughter, a Brigham Young University student, requested a welfare check in September 2022 because she was concerned that her younger siblings had been left home alone for at least five days.

According to a statement DCFS released Tuesday, every referral the agency receives must go through a screening process. “This screening process uses facts and information known at present time to either accept or unaccept for investigation,” the statement read. “It is important to understand that every DCFS referral is handled individually to support the unique facts to each case based on information provided.”

DCFS further stated that a child protective services investigation for “non-supervision” falls under the category of neglect. But an investigation is only opened “when the information reported includes a description of a specific occurrence or allegation that a child is subjected to accidental harm, or an unreasonable risk of accidental harm,” because of a failure to supervise the child at a level “consistent with the child’s age and maturity.”

The agency in its statement Tuesday also cited Utah’s “free-range parenting” law, noting that the law is intended for parents to teach children independence and resilience “based on the child’s age and maturity,” but does not “absolve parents from supervising their children.”

The neighbor said that the abuse allegations since filed against Franke have made her feel that DCFS missed opportunities to investigate the welfare of Franke’s children.

“Several of us tried to help,” the neighbor continued. “I know people left food on doorsteps knowing the kids might not be eating; I know people were making phone calls to DCFS, to the police — people really did try and care. No one was looking the other way.”

The Frankes move to Springville

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kevin Franke, right, estranged husband of Ruby Franke, is joined by his attorney Randy Kester as he leaves a child welfare hearing for their four children in Utah Division of Child and Family Services custody on Sept. 18, 2023, in Provo. The four younger Franke children were taken into state custody after Ruby Franke was arrested last month and charged with child abuse.

The neighbor recalled that Ruby Franke and her husband, Kevin Franke, moved to Springville in January 2020. Neighbors knew Ruby Franke was a YouTuber, known for her since-deleted parenting advice channel called “8 Passengers,” where she video-blogged the lives of her family. Some were apprehensive about having a content creator so close, the neighbor said, worried that it could affect the community’s privacy.

“They were fine at first,” she said of the family, recalling that all six of Franke’s children moved in at the time. “I mean, as normal as you can be if you’re famous YouTubers.”

The neighbor said that, initially, the Franke children interacted with the local church community and befriended other kids in the area. But over the years, they were eventually pulled out of school, the neighbor said. And after Kevin Franke moved out of the family home around August 2022, she said, she observed that the four youngest children were repeatedly left home alone.

Kevin Franke’s attorney, Randy Kester, told The Tribune that Kevin and Ruby have been separated for about a year, which is why Kevin moved out. He has since moved back into the family home, said Kester, who is representing Kevin as he seeks custody of the children placed in state care. Ruby Franke remains in custody at a Washington County jail, where she is being held without bail.

The neighbor said she and others noticed when Ruby Franke came and went from the home because Franke would park in the driveway. Residents would often check in with each other, the neighbor said, asking if others had seen Franke in a while, especially when her children could be seen outside on their own.

Sometimes neighbors would ask the kids directly where Franke was, the neighbor said, and they would say she was in St. George, or that she wasn’t there.

Hildebrandt’s home in Ivins is just outside St. George. Before their arrest, she and Franke ran an online self-improvement program called ConneXions, which Hildebrant, a licensed clinical mental health counselor, founded.

The neighbor said it appeared to her that Franke ”would leave her kids for days to weeks at a time,” and added, “I didn’t know if they had access to food and care.”

That, combined with the understanding that the children weren’t attending school, the neighbor said, is ultimately why she decided to contact DCFS.

“I was looking for like ... what are the rules here?” the neighbor recalled. That’s when an agency staffer she spoke with first cited Utah’s “free-range parenting” law, she said.

Division of Child and Family Services involvement

Utah in 2018 became the first state in the country to pass a “free-range parenting” law, which changed the state’s definition of child neglect.

The legislation added a section to state code explaining that a child “whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity” can engage in independent activities without it being considered child neglect, such as walking, running or biking to and from school, or being home alone.

The law did not specify what a “sufficient age” is, and only green-lit those independent activities so long as kids were adequately fed, clothed and cared for. Supporters at the time said the legislation was intentionally vague, so police and prosecutors could evaluate possible situations of neglect on a case-by-case basis.

The neighbor said she worried about whether the children were being regularly fed, but she told DCFS that she never saw the children hurt.

But a few days later, the neighbor said, she got a follow-up call from DCFS, after a different neighbor had contacted the agency, reporting that they were also concerned for Franke’s children.

The staffer said it was worrisome that the children were being left by themselves so repeatedly and for so long, but said that it was “not necessarily something we can do something about,” the neighbor said.

Last September, Franke’s oldest daughter, Shari Franke, requested a welfare check to the Springville home because she concerned that her sisters and brother had been left home alone for five days while Franke visited a friend in St. George, police records obtained by The Tribune show.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shari Franke, 20, the oldest daughter of Kevin and Ruby Franke, and her attorney Jared Hales, leave a child welfare hearing involving her four siblings in Division of Child and Family Service custody on Sept. 18, 2023, in Provo.

When officers arrived, the children would not answer the front door, records show, but police could see through windows that the kids were home and on a phone call with someone before they went upstairs, out of view. At the time, neighbors also told responding officers that Franke often left the children home alone, police records show.

The neighbor who spoke with The Tribune estimated that officers remained in the area for about an hour or two, but the children never answered the door.

As soon as police left, a car pulled up to the house, the neighbor observed. A woman ran up to the home, the children let her in, and they shut the door behind them, the neighbor said.

After that incident, the neighbor said, the Franke home’s blinds were always closed, and what appeared to be paper was placed over the windows. Neighbors also never saw the kids play outside unattended after that, she said.

“There’s a general sadness, because we were all like, ‘What the hell just happened?’ We tried to help, and it looked like it got more buttoned up,” the neighbor said.

Sometime around May, the neighbor said, she noticed Franke began taking her youngest kids — the 12-year-old and 10-year old who were hospitalized upon her arrest — with her when she left the house on days-long trips.

The neighbor learned of Franke’s arrest, she said, when police surrounded Franke’s Springville home last month, guns drawn. An officer who spoke to the neighbor asked if she had seen Franke’s two middle children, she said, quoting the officer as saying the two youngest were found in Ivins in “really bad shape.”

“It is incredibly frustrating, and so disappointing, and [I have] a feeling of hopelessness around it,” the neighbor said. “What needed to happen?”

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