Will the ‘8 Passengers’ child abuse case spark law reform in Utah?

Dec 29, 2023, 10:49 AM | Updated: 4:36 pm

ST. GEORGE — The child abuse case against Ruby Franke and her business partner, Jodi Hildebrant, has sparked a conversation about Utah’s criminal justice system.

According to Utah law, aggravated child abuse is a second-degree felony, which carries a sentence of one to 15 years in prison for each guilty count.

Washington County Attorney Eric Clarke is pushing for stiffer punishment for child abusers.

“I have been talking to some of our legislators that are open to criminal justice reforms about the level of severity in Utah law,” he told reporters following Hildebrandt’s guilty plea on Wednesday.

For years, Hildebrandt has been a licensed counselor and Franke called herself a life coach — they gave so-called “parental advice” through their social media channels.

The pair was arrested in August after one of Franke’s children escaped and ran to a nearby house for help, who then called police.

“I just had a 12-year-old boy show up here at my front door asking for help,” the neighbor told the 911 dispatcher. “He’s emaciated, he’s got tape around his legs, he’s hungry and he’s thirsty.”

Franke and Hildebrandt admitted to physically torturing two of Franke’s children, including forcing her son’s head underwater and denying them food.

Their guilty pleas mean they will not go to trial, but both women will remain imprisoned while they await sentencing.

Some lawmakers hope this case will spark change.

Sen. David Hinkins, R-Ferron, began drafting a bill after he was approached by Franke’s estranged husband to look into the requirements for becoming a life coach in Utah.

Hinkins found that the way it is now, Franke and Hildebrandt could become life coaches again once they’re out of prison.

“There’s nothing saying that she can’t do it because there’s no guidelines,” he said.

Hinkins said the bill will be introduced in the next legislative session.

“These people are coming in, basically making it sound like they are licensed therapists when they’re not,” he said. “Some of these people, they cause more damage than they do good. So, we’re just trying to cut back on that a little bit.”

Franke and Hildebrandt are set to be sentenced on Feb. 20 in Washington County.

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Will the ‘8 Passengers’ child abuse case spark law reform in Utah?