YouTuber, business partner, remains in prison for child abuse

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A Utah mother of six, who gave parenting advice through a once-popular YouTube channel called 8 Passengers, appeared in court for the first time on Friday alleging that she and the owner of a relationship-counseling business abused her two young children and caused them to starve let.

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The trial was delayed about 45 minutes due to technical difficulties after more than 1,300 people registered to attend the virtual hearing, said Utah State Courts spokeswoman Tania Mashburn.

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Ruby Franke, 41, and Jodi Hildebrandt, 54, were charged with six counts of aggravated child abuse after their Aug. 30 arrest at Hildebrandt’s home in the southern Utah town of Ivins.

Both appeared before Judge Eric Gentry via video from jail, wearing orange-striped uniforms and speaking little. Their lawyers declined to read the charges and the women did not enter pleas.

Gentry ordered them to remain in jail without bail and scheduled their next hearings for Sept. 21. Their lawyers — Lamar Winward for Franke and Douglas Terry for Hildebrandt — said they would request bail hearings.

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Because of the great interest in the case — which also included people coming to listen to the hearing — officers also let about 50 people into the courtroom, Mashburn said.

The charges came after Franke’s 12-year-old son fled Hildebrandt’s home and asked a neighbor to call the police, according to the 911 call released by the St. George Police Department.

The boy was emaciated and had duct tape around his ankles and wrists, but would not say why, the caller said.

“I think he was… he was arrested,” the caller said, his voice faltering. “He’s obviously covered in wounds.”

When the dispatcher asked questions, the boy said he didn’t know where his mother was and that his father wasn’t in the area. The boy said two siblings aged 10 and 14 were still at Hildebrandt’s home.

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“He says they’re fine,” the caller told the dispatcher. “He says what happened to him is his fault.”

While waiting for the police and paramedics, the caller expressed concern that Hildebrandt might be looking for the boy.

The public prosecutor accuses the women of torturing Franke’s son and injuring their ten-year-old daughter, or allowing it to happen. Both children were starved and emotionally damaged, court records say. It is unclear why the children were at Hildebrandt’s home.

The 12- and 10-year-olds were taken to hospital, police said. Together with two other children, they were taken into the care of the child protection service by Franke.

Franke was known for sharing her family’s life on her video blog.

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Among the 1,300 participants in the virtual hearing were people who were livestreamed on TikTok and providing real-time commentary – an example of the fascination the case holds in online communities where Franke was already a controversial figure before her arrest.

The Franke family has been criticized for their parenting decisions, including banning their eldest son from his bedroom for seven months for pranking his younger brother. In a video, Ruby Franke talked about denying lunch to a kindergarten child who forgot it at home. On another page, she threatened to cut off a young girl’s head from a stuffed animal as punishment for cutting things up around the house.

In a video, Franke said she and her husband told their two youngest children they wouldn’t get presents from Santa because they’d been selfish and didn’t respond to punishments like being kept away from school and having the floorboards cleaned.

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“That’s because they’re so deaf, and the more deaf your child is, the greater the success it takes to wake them up,” Franke said in a video.

Some critics started an online petition urging child protection agencies to get involved. Franke’s eldest daughter, Sherri Franke, has broken off contact with her parents, she said in social media posts. The YouTube channel that started in 2015 ended after seven years.

Police records from Springville, Utah — where the Franke family lived — show that on September 18, 2022, Sherri Franke called police to report that her brothers and sisters had been left home alone for days. Police also spoke to neighbors but were unable to make contact with the children. According to the police report, a report was filed with the Children and Family Services Department.

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Records show officers stopped by the home four more times from Sept. 22 to Oct. 3.

Hildebrandt owns a consulting company called ConneXions. The company’s website says Franke provides content for social media and podcasts. ConneXion’s videos featuring Hildebrandt and Franke were removed from YouTube following the charges against the women.

The state of Utah began taking “appropriate action” regarding Hildebrandt’s license as a clinical psychotherapist after her arrest, said Melanie Hall, spokeswoman for the Department of Commerce, which includes the state’s Professional Licensing Division. If someone facing disciplinary action refuses to surrender their driver’s license, they are given an opportunity to comment and a hearing can take place, she said.

The agency is working with the attorney general’s office to potentially hold an emergency licensing authority hearing in the Hildebrandt case, Hall said.

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