How a father tried to warn LDS, BYU officials about ‘horribly unethical’ therapist Jodi Hildebrandt

Church’s Family Services removed her from recommended counselor list, but her practice continued to thrive among Utah Latter-day Saints.

Between 2008 and 2012, Paul Steed said, he and his son warned The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ flagship university, its social services agency and its lawyers about the now-incarcerated therapist Jodi Hildebrandt.

Steed used documentation, provided to The Salt Lake Tribune, as well as personal testimony in an attempt to show that the counselor, now accused of child abuse, had broken the law and ethical standards in her work with his son Adam and Adam’s then-wife.

The Salt Lake City resident approached Utah licensing officials and, in 2012, the state put Hildebrandt on probation for 18 months, after she acknowledged breaking the law in her care of Adam. As a result, the faith’s Family Services stopped recommending the counselor — who two decades ago worked part time for about a year at the church agency — to lay bishops seeking counselors for their congregants.

Still, her practice thrived among Latter-day Saints, particularly in Utah County, where she operated in the ensuing years. Interviews with former clients who met with Hildebrandt after 2012 suggest that bishops continued to send congregants to her and often used church fees to pay the therapist’s steep fees.

How it began

Paul said Adam’s nightmare started in 2008.

At the time, Adam and his new wife were attending church-owned Brigham Young University and living in Wymount Terrace, housing designated for married students. Paul said his son told him that the marriage got off to a rocky start so the couple sought help from their bishop, who recommended Hildebrandt.

Adam said he could not comment for this story due to an agreement in his divorce case that he and his ex-wife would not publicly discuss their former marriage or related issues. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Paul grew alarmed after Adam, a survivor of child sexual abuse, told him that Hildebrandt had assigned his son to group therapy with voyeurs, exhibitionists and other sexual abusers — men, he said, with victims. When Adam tried to part ways with Hildebrandt, Paul said, the therapist tried to punish his son.

Paul alleges that what followed was a yearslong campaign to convince every possible institution with power over Adam — the courts, the church and BYU — that his son was an abuser. As a result, Paul said, Adam was kicked out of school and had his church membership restricted.

Hildebrandt’s lawyer did not return requests for comment.

(Utah State Courts via AP) In this image made from video provided by the Utah State Courts, Jodi Hildebrandt is seen during a virtual court appearance in September in St. George. She used to work part time for Family Services of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Paul said he eventually convinced BYU that Adam was innocent of Hildebrandt’s accusations. His son was readmitted to the school and restored to his full membership in the faith. But the damage was done. Adam, by then a father of two young children, found himself with deep legal bills and no college degree to leverage his way out.

All that was left for Paul to do, he said, was to try and warn others.

Going to the church’s attorneys

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The law offices of Kirton McConkie in Salt Lake City in 2021. Paul Steed says he approached the firm, which frequently represents The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, about therapist Jodi Hildebrandt, who had been counseling his son.

Paul and Adam were no novices when it comes to whistleblowing. Adam was 22 when his testimony helped uncover widespread sexual abuse in the ranks of the Boy Scouts of America. So when Paul decided to alert the church of his concerns about Hildebrandt, the father came prepared with documents and the stubbornness to make his case.

One outcome of suing an arm of the Boy Scouts was that Paul had developed a “tenuous friendship” with lawyer Randy Austin at Kirton McConkie. The attorney, according to his biography on the Salt Lake City law firm’s website, serves as “lead outside controversy and crisis counsel for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Austin’s background includes “internal investigations, crisis management, litigation with special emphasis on child protection, and abuse prevention and response.”

According to Paul, he met with Austin in person in late 2008 and told him that, besides being “horribly unethical,” Hildebrandt had broken the law, sharing details — many of them, he said, fabricated — about Adam with third parties, including BYU’s Honor Code Office, without his son’s consent.

Also present at the meeting, Paul said, was a higher-up in the church’s Family Services, a nonprofit that employs therapists, although Paul added he could not recall the name of the employee.

Paul said he demanded that Family Services remove Hildebrandt from its “referral list” used to help lay bishops match congregants with counselors. The conversation, he said, turned heated.

In the end, Paul added, the attorney promised he would ensure that bishops and stake presidents (regional Latter-day Saint leaders) in areas where Hildebrandt practiced would no longer refer individuals to her.

A Kirton McConkie spokesperson confirmed the 2008 meeting.

“We take all reports regarding abuse very seriously and are dedicated to upholding the highest legal and ethical standards,” the firm said in a statement. “In this case, Randy Austin spoke with Paul Steed in 2008 and advised him to take steps to report his concerns to the Utah Division of Professional Licensing. Austin also took additional, prudent action, but because this involved privileged communication with a client, we are not able to provide further details.”

Paul said he helped his son take the case to DOPL, which put her license on probation in 2012, and Family Services removed Hildebrandt from its referral list.

The church agency did not return requests for comment.

Taking the case to BYU

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students walk between classes at BYU in September 2022. The Provo school had expelled Adam Steed but later readmitted him.

The two hired an attorney, who subpoenaed case notes on Adam from BYU’s Honor Code Office. Paul said they used those notes in 2012 as evidence Hildebrandt had broken a law preventing medical officials from disclosing client details with third parties. The state put Hildebrandt on probation for 18 months, as reported by The Tribune at the time.

At that point, Paul turned his attention to getting Adam reinstated at BYU, in addition to warning leadership there about Hildebrandt.

“We wanted them to stop bishops of BYU wards [or congregations] of married students,” Paul said, “from sending any more of their ward members to Jodi.”

Paul and his wife, Deborah, assembled thick binders of correspondence and other documents alleging Hildebrandt had not just broken the law but also fabricated incriminating details about Adam when she contacted the Provo school’s Honor Code Office. Paul said Adam hand-delivered it to the office of BYU’s then-president, Cecil Samuelson, including a letter written by Paul and provided to The Tribune outlining the binders’ contents and how Adam had come to be expelled.

Paul said his son then received a call from the vice president of student life at the time, Jan Scharman. Paul said she apologized on behalf of the university and assured Adam he would be reinstated.

When asked to confirm Paul’s telling of events, BYU spokesperson Carri Jenkins said “the employees that you have asked about and those involved with this matter have long since retired or left the university. The university would not be able to comment on the situation you reference for additional reasons, including the fact that federal privacy laws prevent BYU from sharing personal student information.”

As to whether BYU leadership tried to warn bishops, Jenkins said that the school “does not advise or instruct wards and their leadership.”

How bishops were involved

Despite the Steeds’ efforts, interviews with six other former Hildebrandt clients, all of whom met with her after 2012, indicate that much of her business growth in the years since came from bishops along the Wasatch Front, especially those in Utah County.

In some cases, the bishops were themselves responsible for recommending Hildebrandt, who had built a reputation as someone capable of “curing” Latter-day Saint men of their porn “addiction.”

Other times, interviewees said they approached their bishops about seeing her based on the recommendation of a friend or a family member or, in one case, a BYU professor.

Regardless of whose idea it was to meet with Hildebrandt, nearly all of those interviewed cited church financial support authorized by bishops and supplied by members’ tithes and offerings as critical to allowing them to work with the therapist, whose services often cost couples $2,000 to $3,000 a month.

Former clients weigh in

Stephanie Jones was a Hildebrandt client from 2018 to 2019. She and her now-former husband were living in Eagle Mountain when they went to their bishop, she said. Jones remembers specifically asking for someone who did not work for the faith’s Family Services, having had little luck with the church agency in the past.

“He was like, ‘You should go see Jodi. Another member in the ward sees her and loves her,’” Jones recalled. Looking back, she said, she believes her bishop had “really good intentions,” adding that “I kind of feel like he was as unaware as anyone else.”

The bishop authorized church funds to pay Hildebrandt’s four-figure bills, Jones said. He did not return a request for comment. A sudden move to Sandy meant they had to again ask for help with payment from their new bishop, who Jones remembered hesitated before consenting. A few months later, the couple moved again, this time to South Jordan’s Daybreak, where their new bishop turned down their request for help paying Hildebrandt, explaining he would fund only Family Services therapists, Jones said, adding that the two were left with a “substantial” tab.

As for the therapy itself, Jones said, she appreciated what Hildebrandt taught her regarding boundaries and codependency but was uncomfortable with her.

“It felt like an abusive relationship,” Jones said, “like she kept saying, ‘You’ll never find another therapist who is going to help you as much as me,’ and that I would fall apart if I left her. It was almost like we couldn’t leave.”

Jones eventually did stop seeing Hildebrandt, she said, after the counselor diagnosed her with an “addiction to control” and had her complete a 12-step program.

When asked how she felt knowing that the Steeds had tried to warn church leaders, Jones said, “I feel like, on the one hand, I can’t expect the bishop to know everything there is to know about every therapist.

“On the other hand, if they know for a fact she’s causing harm, there should be next to her name a ‘Don’t refer her’ to protect the church because I know they care a lot about protecting their own image.”

Jones was also hesitant to ascribe Hildebrandt’s financial success entirely to bishops. “She ran her practice like an MLM (multilevel marketing scheme),” she said, emphasizing that Hildebrandt pressed clients to recruit their friends and family.

Jones surmised that bishops were simply responding to the interest of their congregants.

Orem resident Bryce Dellaripa said he and his now ex-wife began meeting with Hildebrandt six months after they married in 2021.

“Our bishop offered up a few options,” he said, “including Jodi, who he had good things to say about.”

The only downside, the bishop had told him, was that “she was kind of expensive.” But, Dellaripa said, the lay leader quickly offered to cover whatever the couple couldn’t afford.

Dellaripa said pretty quickly he and his wife decided Hildebrandt was not for them. He, too, had conflicted feelings upon learning that the Steeds had warned certain church leaders about Hildebrandt.

“If these officials knew there was mistreatment of members by a mental health professional,” he said, “that would be very concerning and bring into question those officials who chose not to properly investigate.”

Latest on Hildebrandt case

(Utah 5th District Court) Ruby Franke, left, and Jodi Hildebrandt appears in 5th District Court in St. George in September 2023. The two women face six felony counts each of aggravated child abuse.

Police arrested Hildebrandt and her business partner Ruby Franke on Aug. 30 after Franke’s 12-year-old son escaped Hildebrandt’s home. A neighbor called the police because the boy appeared malnourished and had duct tape on his ankles and wrists.

Responding officers said they found Franke’s 10-year-old daughter also appearing malnourished inside Hildebrandt’s home.

The therapist voluntarily surrendered her license Sept. 19. Both she and Franke face six counts of aggravated child abuse.

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