Jamie Belnap: ‘8 Passengers’ and other abuse cases demonstrate a need for greater oversight of mental health in Utah

These incidents of abuse do untold damage to the hard-earned trust of the mental health industry within our communities.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Housing developments are shown in Ivins, Utah, on Wednesday, May 3, 2023. A Utah woman who gave online parenting advice via a once popular YouTube channel has been arrested on suspicion of aggravated child abuse after her malnourished son escaped out a window and ran to a nearby house for help, authorities said. Ruby Franke, whose now defunct channel “8 Passengers” followed her family, was arrested Wednesday night, Aug. 30, 2023, in the southern Utah city of Ivins.

This week has been a sobering one for mental health professionals across Utah.

It began with the Salt Lake Tribune reporting that Utah has a “safety problem with its mental health workers.” The article stated that Utah is fourth in the nation for therapists who have lost their licenses and later reoffend. Just days after that article was published, news emerged that Ruby Franke, a popular Latter-day Saint parenting influencer, and her business partner, Jodi Hildebrandt, had been arrested after Ruby’s young son escaped from Jodi’s home begging for help, emaciated and with duct tape around his wrists and ankles.

As a therapist myself, I was alarmed to learn that Jodi Hildebrandt is also a practicing therapist. And the business she ran with Ruby Franke was ConneXions, a counseling agency in Orem where they were providing online parenting content and in-person counseling groups under the motto “A different modality of healing that psychotherapy cannot offer you.”

A strange combination of religious interpretations mixed with therapeutic language, many of their videos perpetuate confusing religious manipulations, harsh parenting practices, homophobia and victim-blaming. Furthermore, she frequently implies that her clients should trust Jodi, Ruby and the ConneXions program instead of their loved ones and their own intuition.

It is deeply discouraging to hear of mental health professionals abusing their power for personal gain. These incidents of abuse do untold damage to the hard-earned trust of the mental health industry within our communities. I imagine it will take quite some time to understand the full impact and harm that has been caused by ConneXions. But on the heels of reports of widespread abuses in Utah’s teen residential treatment industry, we need to be asking why this keeps happening in Utah and why wasn’t Jodi Hildbrandt stopped?

Licensing professionals knew Jodi Hildebrandt was abusing her power as far back as 2012, when her license was put on probation for ethical violations. She reported a false pornography addiction to a client’s Latter-day Saint clergy, and to BYU administration, without his permission. That client later reports that Jodi used these lies to manipulate him into paying for more expensive therapy services, and he states he was ejected from BYU as a result of her actions.

And yet, the licensing board allowed her to continue practicing independently after her 18-month probation. She could have been stopped long before the Frankes, and before ConneXions, but she wasn’t. Knowing she was unsafe, and after her 18-month slap on the wrist, she was allowed to continue counseling vulnerable populations with what appears to be very little oversight. Since her arrest, reports started pouring in from previous clients documenting Jodi’s ongoing egregious ethical violations.

There has been considerable criticism of DCFS for their lack of response when friends, neighbors and family reported Ruby Franke’s abuses over the last few years. But what about the lack of oversight and safety protocols for Jodi professionally? I have been on both sides of the therapeutic relationship, so I know first-hand the potential positive impact qualified mental health professionals can have on an individual’s well-being. But I also know that when individuals are searching for a lifeline, they are particularly vulnerable.

According to the Tribune article, when Utah therapists are reported for safety violations, 45% of them later reoffend. That is a terrifying statistic and, according to the article, those numbers are significantly higher in Utah than the rest of the nation. So what is going on here?

Just as we should be able to trust our educators, doctors and clergy with the most personal parts of our lives, we should be able to trust a therapist. Yet even with whispers of Lori Vallow still hanging in the air, abuses of this kind just keep happening. Clearly there is a cultural component to these patterns of control. And when trusted individuals abuse their authority, combining it with dogmatic and religious principles to exercise power over a group of people, we can call it a cult, or we can call it a tragedy. But however it’s sliced, it is incredibly dangerous.

On a community and professional level, I keep asking myself what we can do. How can we better protect vulnerable populations? How do we hold professionals and politicians accountable to separate religious authority from public and professional institutions? How do we implement a cultural shift that values intuition over compliance and absolute respect for persons of authority?

If Jodi Hildebrandt and Ruby Franke have taught us anything, it’s that we must be wary of anyone who tells us they know more about us than we do ourselves; to pay attention and ask for a second professional opinion when something feels “off” about an authority figure, institution or program; and to also be wary of anyone who pulls us away from those we love in an effort to tie us more tightly to them. There are innumerable counselors and treatment programs who are ethical and life-saving. But recent cases indicate we need more oversight, not less, to assure we know how to find them.

Jamie Belnap

Jamie Belnap is a therapist who works both in private practice and at a substance abuse treatment center. She lives in beautiful Heber City with her husband, four children and her little dog, Wally.