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Ruby Franke, the YouTube mom who gave parenting advice, pleads guilty to child abuse

This image from video shows Ruby Franke during a hearing on Monday, Dec. 18, 2023, in St. George, Utah. Franke, a Utah mother of six who gave parenting advice via a once-popular YouTube channel called "8 Passengers," pleaded guilty to four counts of aggravated child abuse for abusing and starving two of her children.
Ron Chaffin
St. George News via AP, Pool
This image from video shows Ruby Franke during a hearing on Monday, Dec. 18, 2023, in St. George, Utah. Franke, a Utah mother of six who gave parenting advice via a once-popular YouTube channel called "8 Passengers," pleaded guilty to four counts of aggravated child abuse for abusing and starving two of her children.

Updated December 18, 2023 at 4:52 PM ET

A Utah mother of six who gave parenting advice on YouTube pleaded guilty Monday to child abuse charges and will go to prison for trying to convince her two youngest children they were evil, possessed and needed to be punished to repent.

Ruby Franke stood shackled in gray and white jail clothing as she closed her eyes and took a deep breath before pleading guilty to each of her first three charges. On the fourth, she fought back some emotion before saying: "With my deepest regret and sorrow for my family and my children, guilty."

Judge John J. Walton scheduled sentencing for Feb. 20 after accepting the plea agreement, which described new details of the abuse the children endured, including the claims that they were possessed. Under the plea agreement, Franke agreed to serve a prison term and the sentences will run consecutively. Sentencing would be up to the judge.

Franke pleaded not guilty to two other counts, court records said, and was returned to custody after the hearing.

Under Utah law, second-degree aggravated child abuse can be charged if that person knowingly or intentionally inflicts serious physical injury to a child or causes or permits another to inflict serious physical injury to their child. Each charge carries a sentence of one to 15 years in prison.

Winward Law said in a statement Friday that the abuse occurred while Franke was influenced by a relationship counselor who led her to "a distorted sense of morality."

"Ruby Franke is a devoted mother and is also a woman committed to constant improvement," Winward Law said in a statement. Franke initially believed that her co-defendant Jodi Hildebrandt "had the insight to offer a path to continual improvement," but said that Hildebrandt "took advantage of this quest and twisted it into something heinous."

In the plea agreement, Franke admits that she tortured her son from May 22 through Aug. 30 by forcing him into hours of physical tasks, summer work outdoors without adequate water and "repeated and serious sunburns" that blistered. He was denied food or given very plain meals, and he was isolated from other people without access to books, notebooks or electronics.

After he tried to run away in July, his hands and feet were regularly bound, sometimes with handcuffs.

At times, ropes were used to tie together handcuffs that secured his hands and feet as he lay on his stomach, lifting his arms and legs off the ground and injuring his wrists and ankles, the plea agreement said.

Franke also admitted to kicking her son while wearing boots, holding his head under water and smothering his mouth and nose with her hands, according to the plea agreement.

"He was also told that everything that was being done to him were acts of love," the agreement states.

Franke acknowledged similarly abusing her 9-year-old daughter by forcing her to work outside, run on dirt roads barefoot, and go without food and water.

"She was also repeatedly told she was evil and possessed, the punishments were necessary for her to be obedient and repent, and these things were being done to her in order to help her," the plea agreement said. The girl "was convinced" what her mother said was true, the agreement said.

Franke and Hildebrandt were arrested on Aug. 30 after Franke's 12-year-old son escaped from Hildebrandt's house in the southern Utah city of Ivins and asked a neighbor to call 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 wouldn't say why, the caller reported.

"I think he's been ... he's been detained," the caller said, his voice breaking up. "He's obviously covered in wounds."

The boy and Franke's daughter, who was also found at Hildebrandt's house, were taken to the hospital. Eventually, Franke's four youngest children were taken into state custody.

Franke and Hildebrandt were each charged with six felony counts of aggravated child abuse. They have remained jailed since their arrests.

During Franke's incarceration, "she has actively engaged in an introspection that has allowed her to reset her moral compass and understand the full weight of her actions. Ms. Franke is committed to taking responsibility for the part she played in the events leading up to her incarceration," the statement said.

The boy told investigators that "Jodi" put the ropes on his ankles and wrists and that they used cayenne pepper and honey to dress the wounds caused by the ropes, according to a search warrant.

Hildebrandt has agreed not to see patients until the allegations are addressed by state licensing officials. Her next court hearing is set for Dec. 27, according to court records. Her attorney, Douglas Terry, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment on the allegations made against Hildebrandt in the statement by Franke's attorney.

The Franke family was criticized online for its "8 Passengers" video blog showing parenting decisions including banning their oldest son from his bedroom for seven months for pranking his younger brother. In other videos, Ruby Franke talked about refusing to take lunch to a kindergartener who forgot it at home and threatening to cut the head off a young girl's stuffed toy to punish her for cutting things in the house.

In one video, Franke said she and her husband told their two youngest children that they would not be getting presents from Santa Claus one year because they had been selfish and weren't responding to punishment like being kept home from school and cleaning the floorboards.

The YouTube channel, which started in 2015, ended after seven years.

Franke's husband, Kevin Franke, has filed for divorce.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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