Kevin Franke says his ex-wife and Jodi Hildebrandt manipulated Utah’s child welfare system, asks for stronger laws

Two of Ruby and Kevin Franke’s children were found abused and malnourished last summer. The father told legislators that Hildebrandt knew the child welfare system and its loopholes.

Kevin Franke, the ex-husband of parenting influencer Ruby Franke, urged state legislators on Tuesday to make changes to child welfare laws in Utah — saying there wasn’t “sufficient evidence” for caseworkers to intervene and protect his own children before they were found abused and malnourished last summer.

He said his ex-wife and her business partner, Jodi Hildebrandt, were able to skirt caseworkers with Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services because Hildebrandt had been a licensed therapist, and “knew the Utah child welfare system like the back of her hand.” That included, he said, knowing the loopholes and the system’s limitations.

“All they had to do were three things,” Kevin Franke said, “One: Keep the children isolated from the world. Two: Ignore all the phone calls from DCFS case workers. And three: Not answer the door when DCFS and, or, police officers knocked.”

“That’s it,” he added. “Those three things were all that were required for all of the train wreck that you’ve seen play out in the media over the past year.”

In an August 2023 interview with police, Kevin Franke told officers that he had zero contact with his children while separated from Ruby Franke for over a year. He spoke to police after they had arrested his ex-wife and Hildebrandt, after the Frankes’ 12-year-old emaciated son escaped Hildebrandt’s Ivins home on Aug. 30 and asked a neighbor for help.

Responding officers soon found the Frankes’ 10-year-old daughter also malnourished inside Hildebrandt’s home. The two women pleaded guilty to four counts of aggravated child abuse in December, and were each sentenced in February to spend at least four years in prison.

It’s not publicly known what information DCFS received about the Franke children — and how they responded to that information — prior to the August arrests. DCFS denied The Salt Lake Tribune’s request for records about the Franke children, citing privacy concerns.

But other public records show the Frankes’ adult daughter, Shari Franke, had called police because she was so concerned about the safety of her younger siblings. In September 2022, she asked Springville officers to check on the children, whom she said had been left home alone for five days, to make sure they had enough food “for the extended period.” At the time, police responded and the kids appeared to be home, but no one came to the door, the records state.

Kevin Franke implored lawmakers on the Child Welfare Legislative Oversight Panel Tuesday to change state law so that child welfare workers can take temporary custody of children when they receive “reported red flags” from friends, neighbors or family members who have concerns — without having to uncover additional evidence of child abuse.

“Perpetrators of child abuse rarely commit such acts out in public, but behind closed doors,” he said. “These individuals should no longer be able to hide child abuse by simply ignoring the phone calls, and the door knocks from DCFS caseworkers.”

Kevin Franke also asked for “emotional abuse” to be better defined in Utah law, and that the laws be strengthened to be more punitive to parents who leave their children at home alone for days at a time.

DCFS Director Tonya Myrup told the legislators on the committee Tuesday that cases where families don’t cooperate with caseworkers are “some of the most difficult that DCFS sees.” She told the panel that when school is in session, DCFS workers will often try to interview children there to try to figure out what’s happening at home.

“Part of that challenge is that sometimes the children are very indoctrinated,” she said. “They might be fearful. They sometimes may be fearful of the government. And so sometimes the interviews with children may not be enough.”

Myrup said DCFS workers will try to gather information from neighbors, friends or other family members — but she said sometimes even that’s not sufficient information to justify a legal intervention.

“I know that caseworkers do go to extreme efforts in attempts to try to reach the family,” she said. “Multiple home visits with law enforcement, multiple attempts to see the children in school, but unfortunately there are times when after those efforts … we may just not have enough to legally intervene any further.”

Kevin Franke made one other ask of the legislators at Tuesday’s meeting: That an audit be done of the Division of Professional Licensing about what complaints the licensing division received, what they knew about Hildebrandt — and whether it was appropriate that she held a therapy license in Utah for years prior to her conviction.

Hildebrandt in recent years had moved away from her career as a licensed therapist and had instead rebranded as a “life coach.” Kevin Franke earlier this year also asked legislators to consider regulating the life coaching industry.

Currently, no other state has enacted meaningful regulation of life coaches, despite rising concerns about the potential for abuse. An investigation this year from The Tribune and ProPublica showed that some Utah therapists have lost their licenses for misconduct, and subsequently became life coaches.

“A licensed mental health professional should not be able to turn off the ethics and standards associated with his or her professional licensure by acting under the nebulous guise of something called a ‘life coach,’” Kevin Franke said Tuesday. “We know of no other licensed profession that allows such reckless behavior.”