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DANIELLA RIVERA

Kevin Franke calls for child welfare reform after YouTube mom sent to prison for child abuse

Jul 9, 2024, 8:13 PM | Updated: 10:43 pm

SALT LAKE CITY – It was a scene that shocked even first responders: a malnourished and severely injured boy escaping a true house of horrors to get help.

“I’m incredibly grateful for the heroics of my son,” Kevin Franke told KSL TV Tuesday during his first interview since the arrests of the child’s mother, Ruby Franke, and Jodi Hildebrandt, a former Utah counselor.

Kevin Franke told the KSL Investigators he is on a mission to make sure what happened to his children doesn’t happen to any other Utah families.

He said help should have come sooner for his children, who were tortured at the hands of Ruby Franke and her business partner, Hildebrandt.

The two women were arrested in August 2023 after one of the Franke children escaped Hildebrandt’s Ivins home and asked a neighbor to call police. Both women have since pleaded guilty to charges of aggravated child abuse and are serving prison sentences, admitting to what prosecutors called the “torture” of Ruby and Kevin Franke’s younger children.

Kevin Franke called for change as he spoke to Utah lawmakers Tuesday at a regular meeting of the Child Welfare Oversight Panel. He then spoke with reporters.

In his remarks to lawmakers, Franke said he was isolated from his family for more than a year, at Hildebrandt’s direction, all while she and Ruby Franke navigated “loopholes” in the system to evade child welfare workers and police.

“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 caseworkers. And three, not answer the door when DCFS and/or police officers knocked. That’s it.”

The KSL Investigators first uncovered and reported that police visited the Franke family home 15 times between March 2019 and Aug. 31, 2023. At least five of those visits were to assist Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services.

Kevin Franke said officials didn’t make contact with the family during those visits, and Hildebrandt also coached him to avoid DCFS.
He recalled Hildebrandt saying: “They want to rip your family apart. They want to destroy your family. This is what government does.”

Kevin Franke continued, “So I didn’t answer the phone.”

Where was Kevin Franke? Evidence in ‘8 Passengers’ abuse case reveals what he told police

 

DCFS Director Tonya Myrup told lawmakers on the panel that some of the agency’s most difficult cases involve families who won’t cooperate.

“Unfortunately, there are times when after those efforts and we’ve staffed it with our attorneys, we may just not have enough to legally intervene any further,” Myrup said.

Now Kevin Franke wants Utah law changed so DCFS caseworkers and police can place children in temporary protective custody when there are multiple reports of red flags but without additional evidence of abuse.

He is also calling for harsher penalties for emotional abuse and abandonment of children, along with regulation of the life coaching industry.

“A licensed mental health professional should not be able to just 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,” Franke told legislators. “We know of no other licensed profession that allows such reckless behavior.”

And he wants an audit of Utah’s Division of Professional Licensing (DOPL), which oversaw Hildebrandt’s license to practice as a mental health counselor.

“We call for a professional audit of DOPL regarding what it knew about Jodi Hildebrandt, when it knew it, and how it acted based on that knowledge,” Kevin Franke said. “And we call for that audit to be transparent and shared with the public.”

In a timeline and statement provided to KSL TV, DOPL spokesperson Melanie Hall noted a prior disciplinary action taken against Hildebrandt in 2012 but did not indicate the organization was aware of any other issues prior to her arrest in the child abuse case.

“While there is no indication in Ms. Hildebrandt’s 2012 disciplinary action that she would participate in the horrific actions against Franke’s children in 2023 that were the basis of her criminal conviction, DOPL remains open to improvement, especially when it concerns public safety,” Hall wrote.

Hildebrandt, founder of Orem-based mental health company ConneXions Classroom, and Ruby Franke, known for her now-deleted “8 Passengers” YouTube channel, were sentenced to prison in February after both pleaded guilty to four counts each of aggravated child abuse.

Prosecutors have said the conditions the children were living in during the months leading up to the women’s arrests were comparable to a concentration camp. Ruby Franke’s own journal documented abuse including starvation of the children, forcing them to perform physical tasks for hours, and exposure to the harsh desert elements without proper clothing and access to water.

Video previously obtained by KSL TV through public record requests captures the moment a child escaped from the Ivins home, knocked on a neighbor’s door, and asked for food and water. The neighbor called police, noting duct tape on the child’s ankles and wrists.

According to police, the child was emaciated with open wounds and told detectives Hildebrandt tied them up with a rope and used cayenne pepper to dress the wounds. A second child, 10, was also found malnourished in Hildebrandt’s home.

Kevin Franke told journalists Tuesday that he thinks every day about what might have happened if the horrific abuse had continued any longer.

“It is a lot to deal with every day – the questions of ‘What if? What could have been done? What should have happened? What I should have done? What others should have done?” Kevin Franke said. “It haunts you.”

When asked how Kevin Franke and his children are doing now, he said, “I can say that we are struggling and working through the process of recovery.”

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

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Kevin Franke calls for child welfare reform after YouTube mom sent to prison for child abuse