Ruby Franke pleads guilty to child abuse charges

Franke and her business partner, Jodi Hildebrandt, were arrested Aug. 30.

(Screenshot via Utah State Courts) Utah parenting influencer Ruby Franke enters a courtroom in 5th District Court in St. George on Monday, Dec. 18, 2023. Franke pleaded guilty to four counts of aggravated child abuse Monday, nearly four months after her Aug. 30 arrest.

Utah parenting influencer Ruby Franke pleaded guilty to four counts of aggravated child abuse Monday, nearly four months after police said two of her children were found malnourished at her business partner’s home and placed in state custody.

Franke and her business partner, Jodi Hildebrandt, were each initially charged with six counts of aggravated child abuse after Franke’s 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter were removed from Hildebrandt’s Ivins home. The two women have remained in Washington County custody ever since.

Two of the six counts originally filed against Franke with were dismissed under her plea agreement. In the agreement, prosecutors further detailed the abuse they say her two youngest children suffered during the three months leading up to Franke and Hildebrandt’s arrests — including that Franke forced her son’s head underwater, cut off his oxygen by smothering him with her hands and kicked him while wearing boots.

[Read more: Ruby Franke plea agreement details abuse of her 2 young children]

The filing also states Franke’s youngest daughter was denied food and water, made to run barefoot on dirt roads repeatedly and was told she was “evil and possessed.”

During the Monday hearing, Franke told 5th District Judge John J. Walton that she had read “every word” of the plea agreement presented to her.

“With my deepest regret, and sorrow for my family and my children — guilty,” Franke said after Walton asked how she would plea to her fourth and final stipulated child abuse count.

Franke to be sentenced in February

Walton said there “won’t be any argument” about whether prison is an appropriate sentence under the plea agreement. Each count carries a potential prison sentence of one to 15 years, according to Washington County prosecutors. Penalties for the four counts will run consecutively, Walton added.

Franke’s sentencing hearing is currently slated for Feb. 20 at 10 a.m.

Winward Law — the law firm representing Franke — said in a Friday statement that Franke had planned to enter into a plea agreement during the Monday hearing, according FOX 13.

In the statement, Franke’s attorneys argued Hildebrandt took advantage of Franke and “systematically isolated” her from her family — which resulted in Franke “being subjected to a distorted sense of morality, shaped by Ms. Hildebrandt’s influence.”

“Initially, Ms. Franke believed that Jodi Hildebrandt had the insight to offer a path to continual improvement,” the statement reads. “Ms. Hildebrandt took advantage of this quest and twisted it into something heinous.”

Franke’s plea agreement also stipulated that Franke will testify against Hildebrandt. In return, it states the Washington County attorney’s office will “remain neutral” for future hearings before the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole.

Hildebrandt was not present during the Monday hearing, but court records indicate she is expected to appear before a judge on Dec. 27. An attempt to reach Hildebrandt’s defense team for comment Monday wasn’t immediately successful.

About 300 people listened in to a planned audio-only livestream of the Monday hearing, but there were technical difficulties, and audio was not made available until about 11:20 a.m.

Franke and Hildebrandt’s history

(Utah 5th District Court) Ruby Franke and Jodi Hildebrandt make an appearance in 5th District Court in St. George on Friday, Sept. 8., 2023. The two women were each initially charged with six counts of aggravated child abuse.

Before their arrest, Hildebrandt and Franke ran an online self-improvement program together called ConneXions, based out of Ivins, where Hildebrandt’s home is located.

It’s unclear how the two met, but Hildebrandt has been a licensed clinical mental health counselor since 2003, according to the Utah Division of Professional Licensing. She first acquired her associate clinical mental health counselor license in May of that year, and became a licensed clinical mental health counselor in July 2005, records show.

On Sept. 19, Hildebrandt voluntarily surrendered her counseling license in light of the felony child abuse charges filed against her. The move essentially limited her ability to practice in any way until the child abuse case is adjudicated and a disciplinary investigation is conducted.

The surrender was not considered a disciplinary action, and Hildebrandt was able to consult with an attorney before doing it, a stipulation and order regarding the surrender states. The division has not issued a finding of unlawful conduct.

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

Franke and Hildebrandt last appeared in court together for the child abuse case on Sept. 8, when 5th District Judge Eric Gentry announced that they would remain held without bail until their next scheduled court appearance.

Deputy Washington County Attorney Eric W. Clarke filed a motion Dec. 7 requesting the Monday hearing, where Franke formally entered her plea.

Franke last appeared in court alone on Nov. 14 for a speeding ticket, which was filed five days before her Aug. 30 arrest. The ticket was dismissed.

Franke’s husband files for divorce

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kevin Franke, right, is joined by his attorney, Randy Kester, as he leaves a child welfare hearing regarding the four Franke children placed in state custody on Sept. 18, 2023, at the 4th District courthouse in Provo. Kevin Franke filed for divorce from Ruby Franke in November, about three months after she was charged with child abuse.

Franke’s husband, Kevin Franke, filed for divorce on Nov. 29. His formal petition for divorce was classified as private, according to court records, but a domestic relations injunction filed in the case that is publicly available states that neither of the parents can disparage or attempt to influence the children’s views of the other parent. Kevin Franke’s lawyer previously said the couple was separated for about a year before Ruby Franke’s August arrest.

Ruby Franke became known as a parenting advice video-blogger after she launched a YouTube channel in 2015 called “8 Passengers.” The channel garnered more than 2 million subscribers at its height, and was named for Franke, her husband and their six children.

But the channel drew controversy for Franke’s parenting decisions — in a 2020 video, one of Franke’s sons said he was forced to sleep on a beanbag for months as punishment for his prank on a sibling. In another, Franke said she refused to bring food to her then-6-year-old daughter at school, who had forgotten to bring it that day.

The channel was deleted in 2022, the same year Franke and her husband separated and Franke appeared to begin working on ConneXions with Hildebrandt.

Before Hildebrandt surrendered her license in September, Division of Professional Licensing records stated that Hildebrandt had received “no disciplinary actions.”

Yet in 2012, she was put on probation for 18 months after she allegedly discussed a patient with his leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Brigham Young University without his permission, The Salt Lake Tribune reported. In those conversations, the patient said, Hildebrandt accused him of having serious problems, but never actually diagnosed him or spent enough time with him to do so.

The omission of that disciplinary action is likely because, according to Utah law, state websites with public access to professionals’ disciplinary records must remove a record after 10 years have passed, unless otherwise required by federal law. Professionals may also petition that a disciplinary record be removed once five years have passed since a final disciplinary order was issued, the statute says.