Gov. Cox calls Ruby Franke child abuse allegations ‘disturbing,’ says DCFS will review case

Cox said the child welfare agency will review what could’ve been done differently and if any laws should change, as he said the agency does with all other complaints.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at his monthly news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, during which he commented on the ongoing Ruby Franke child abuse case.

Gov. Spencer Cox called the child abuse allegations levied against Ruby Franke “disturbing” during his monthly news conference Thursday, and said that — like all child welfare complaints — the state plans to review how it handled the case.

“It’s one thing to disagree about parenting methods,” Cox said, “which is some of the controversy, and I think it’s important to separate that from the allegations of this event, where a child was literally duct-taped to a chair, was malnourished, was emaciated.”

Franke and her business partner, Jodi Hildebrandt, were arrested Aug. 30 and each face six felony counts 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, charging documents state. They and two of Franke’s other children have since been placed into the custody of the Utah Division of Child and Family Services.

Search warrant records released this week from Santa Clara-Ivins City police revealed that Franke’s 12-year-old son told police that Hildebrandt had tied him down with rope before he escaped her home.

The boy “appeared to be emaciated” and was “abnormally thin and weak” when officers arrived, the records state. Under the duct tape, first responders found open wounds, which the boy said “they” — seeming to reference his mother and Hildebrandt — had used cayenne pepper and honey to treat.

Cox noted that the state deals with child abuse cases such as this one “all the time,” but many aren’t as high-profile as that of a YouTuber like Ruby Franke, who previously hosted a channel called “8 Passengers,” where she video-blogged the lives of her family. The channel was launched in 2015 and garnered more than 2 million followers before it was deleted last year.

“I am concerned about making sure we’re doing enough to protect our kids,” Cox said Thursday. “Like any others, when there’s a DCFS complaint, we review all of those to see what were the the actual factors that were complained about, what what was our role in that; is there anything that we could have done differently and do laws need to be changed?”

A Springville woman and neighbor of Ruby Franke previously told The Salt Lake Tribune that she spoke with the Utah Division of Child Services at least twice last year, expressing concern about the well-being of Franke’s children, because she said they were being left home alone for extended periods of time. The agency told her there was was nothing they could do, she told The Tribune.

An agency employee specifically cited Utah’s landmark “free-range parenting” law, the neighbor said, which was passed in 2018 to ensure child neglect statutes don’t hinder 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.

Because of that law, the employee told the neighbor that DCFS could not pursue any action unless a child left alone was injured, the neighbor said. DCFS declined to release to The Tribune any reports connected to Franke, but the neighbor provided voicemail and text message records documenting her interactions with the agency.

DCFS said in a statement this week 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 also cited the “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 said. “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.”

Franke and Hildebrandt remain in custody without bail in Washington County. They are expected to next appear in court sometime after Oct. 5, though a specific hearing date has not yet been scheduled.