Ruby Franke: Judge orders child custody case closed to the public

The order comes after Ruby Franke accused two of her children of being abusive to other children during an earlier public hearing.

A Utah judge decided to seal hearings and documents related to the welfare and placement of Ruby Franke’s children, one of two court cases involving the mother who ran a popular YouTube channel about her large family before her August arrest on suspicion of child abuse.

Fourth District Juvenile Court Judge Suchada P. Bazzelle issued the ruling to close the juvenile court case on Oct. 10, ahead of a pre-trial hearing scheduled for Tuesday in Provo, where Bazzelle oversaw the case’s last public hearing on Sept. 18.

Bazzelle said in her order that while she recognizes the “media and public interest in this case and values transparency,” the court can’t guarantee a “fair, impartial and private process” for the Frankes and their children without “adequate safeguards to shield the children from the intrusive effects of media coverage related to this case.”

The media and public are restricted from observing all future court hearings in this case, according to the order.

Extended family members will be allowed to attend after the court verifies their relationship to the children, the order states, but are restricted from talking about information they learn at hearings with “any media outlet, person, or organization not affiliated with the case” and cannot post about the hearings on social media.

‘Children’s sensitive information... published worldwide’

Ruby and Kevin Franke’s four minor children were taken into Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) custody after Ruby Franke’s Aug. 30 arrest. She and her business partner, Jodi Hildebrandt, a licensed mental health counselor, were each later charged with six felony counts of aggravated child abuse.

Neighbors called police when Franke’s 12-year-old son escaped Hildebrandt’s home in Ivins, about 260 miles away from the Franke family home in Utah County, to ask neighbors for food and water. Neighbors said the child had duct tape on his wrists and ankles, and police said Franke’s 10-year-old daughter was later found malnourished in the home.

The arrest and court proceedings have attracted intense interest from followers online, where Franke and her family appeared on a parenting advice YouTube channel called “8 Passengers.” It had more than 2 million followers at its height, though it drew controversy for videos that showed various punishments for the Franke children, such as banning the oldest son from his bedroom for months because he pranked his brother.

The channel was deleted last year, and Franke has since been working with Hildebrandt on ConneXions, a self-improvement program that offers DVDs, workshops, workbooks and other materials.

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

Kevin Franke, who has been separated from his wife, has been seeking custody of the four children since Franke’s arrest. The family’s two other children are both older than 18 and are not part of this case, although 20-year-old Shari Franke has regularly attended court hearings.

At a Sept. 18 hearing, DCFS attorney Virginia Blanchard, who represented the four younger children in state custody, gave brief statements in favor of sealing the case from the public. Ruby Franke appeared virtually from jail, while Kevin Franke, Shari Franke and their attorneys all attended the hearing in person.

Blanchard’s request came after Ruby Franke, while also appearing virtually at an earlier Sept. 7 hearing, accused two of her children of being abusive to other children, The Daily Mail reported.

“We’re talking about children. We’re not talking about adults,” Blanchard said during the Sept. 18 hearing. “Children’s sensitive information that has been published worldwide.”

‘Intense, extraordinary and intrusive’ coverage

In making the decision to seal the case, Bazzelle referenced events that occurred at prior hearings, including coverage of the Sept. 7 and Sept. 18 hearings.

Bazzelle wrote that a reporter on Sept. 7 “gained access to the proceedings by slipping unannounced into the courtroom” on a day when the discussion included “highly sensitive information pertaining to the children.”

Media outlets later wrote stories about the hearing, “disseminating that confidential and intensely private information about the children to a world-wide audience,” she wrote.

Bazzelle wrote that she learned that reporters had broken courthouse rules by taking photographs of individuals involved in the case in the hallway outside the courtroom on Sept. 18, and that those outlets later published the photos.

“News media and social media coverage of this matter have been intense, extraordinary and intrusive to the judicial process and are expected to remain so indefinitely,” Bazzelle wrote. “The presence of members of the general public and/or news media in these proceedings have been, are, and will be detrimental to the best interest of the minor parties in this matter.”

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

Complicated relationships and upcoming court dates

On Sept. 18, before her ruling, Bazzelle asked all parties — including Shari Franke — to submit briefs on whether to keep the custody proceedings open, adding that doing so could bar the 20-year-old eldest sibling from court. A mediation on the matter was scheduled for Oct. 11.

The order did not directly reference any material contained in those briefs.

Attorney Jared Hales, who represents Shari Franke, confirmed Monday that she would be allowed in the courtroom in accordance with Bazzelle’s order. When asked if Shari had any additional comment, he said, “No comment.”

Outside the courthouse on Sept. 18, Randy Kester, Kevin Franke’s attorney, told reporters that Shari Franke “has a right” to be in the courtroom, but added Bazzelle would make the final decision.

[Read more: Ruby Franke case: A timeline of events]

Police records show that Kevin Franke tried to have Shari Franke arrested in the wake of her mother’s arrest.

Kevin Franke called police to report a burglary when he saw the door to the family’s Springville home had been broken open and some of his electronics removed. “Kevin stated that Shari is not allowed in the home, and that he believes she entered unlawfully and he wants her charged with burglary,” an officer wrote in police documents.

But an officer explained to him that police had forced the door open to execute a search warrant and that officers went with Shari Franke to the home on Aug. 31 to retrieve personal items for two of her siblings.

Shari Franke said in an April podcast that she became estranged from her family in 2022 after her mother started working on ConneXions. Police records also indicate she had called police previously to check on her siblings and make sure they had enough food after their mother left them home alone.

Court dates in Franke and Hildebrandt’s child abuse criminal case have not been scheduled, as of Monday morning.

A status review hearing for the criminal case was scheduled for later in the day on Sept. 18, but that morning a Utah courts spokesperson announced that the hearing had been postponed, saying attorneys had filed a stipulated motion to continue it because they needed “additional time needed to review copious amounts of discovery.”