Last Wednesday, social media influencers Ruby Franke and Jodi Hildebrandt were arrested after two children were found suffering from malnutrition and evidence of restraint lacerations on their bodies.
Authorities were called after Franke’s 12-year-old son escaped from Hildebrant’s home, fleeing to a neighbor’s house. Another child, a 10-year-old girl, was found inside the home when police arrived. Both children were taken to a hospital to receive medical treatment.
Neighbors allegedly have been concerned for the well-being of Franke’s children for quite some time, recalling strange behavior exhibited by both Franke and her children.
One neighbor shared with NBC News that Franke’s daughter Eve (10) “would wander the neighborhood while her mother was away for prolonged periods of time” during the school day, sometimes asking neighbors if their children could play. The neighbor says this behavior began after Franke kicked her husband, Kevin, out of their family home last year.
Another neighbor told NBC, “I’m really angry because I spoke up.” She recalls calling Child Protective Services in September 2022 after witnessing behavior that concerned her. According to this neighbor, CPS already had received complaints about Franke. However, when authorities visited the home to make a wellness check, no one answered the door. Shortly after the officers left the home, neighbors said papers were placed on the home’s windows, preventing anyone from seeing inside.
This controlled social isolation was not only occurring in the neighborhood, however. Ruby Franke’s family YouTube channel, 8 Passengers, which she first started in 2015, displayed many details of her children’s lives. Franke often uploaded videos of herself discussing her techniques for disciplining her children, many of which are controversial and corroborate claims made by neighbors.
Franke stopped using the channel in 2021, and it has since been deleted from the internet. However, other social media users have saved and reposted her videos.
TikTok and YouTube users post the content with additional commentary criticizing Franke, many saying it seems like she was intentionally neglecting her children, bragging by posting the videos on social media for public recognition.
One of the most-circulated videos depicts Franke refusing to bring her 6-year-old child food at school after receiving calls from teachers saying they forgot to pack a lunch. Franke explained to viewers it was her children’s responsibility, not her own, to pack their lunches. It was inconvenient for Franke to bring the child food.
To reinforce the lesson, she hoped no one else at school would give the child food. Being hungry, she said, is the natural consequence of forgetting to bring lunch.
In another video, Franke tells viewers her oldest son, Chad, slept on a bean bag chair for months as a punishment for bad behavior. The son is depicted in the video sitting beside her as she jokes about his punishment.
The same son, according to reposted clips, was sent to a wilderness therapy camp for some time, the kind of camp notorious for various types of child abuse (including sexual abuse, malnourishment, psychological abuse and more).
Many other videos depict Franke embarrassing her children by filming them during personal or sensitive moments.
Many other videos depict Franke embarrassing her children by filming them during personal or sensitive moments, like when they are sick or getting in trouble. Other clips have circulated in which Franke comments about the bodies of her children, including a video where Franke films her young daughter during a conversation about shaving her legs, or another where she criticizes another daughter’s hair before school.
Finally, many users are sharing clips and commenting that the original videos show how the oldest Franke daughter, Sherri, now estranged from the family, had to take on a parental role at a young age due to Franke’s parenting style. In one clip, she is seen gently waking up the younger kids for school and making their lunches.
In contrast, another clip depicts Franke complaining about her difficulties waking up her youngest child for preschool, telling viewers that instead of making sure she woke up on time, she let her sleep through it, missing an entire day of preschool as a punishment.
Franke and Hildebrant: Friendship and LDS membership
In recent years, Franke developed a close relationship with Jodi Hildebrandt, founder of Connexions Classroon. This life coaching service offers advice on how a person can achieve “connection” with others, rejecting the “distortion” of the world and instead seeking the truth. One of the services Connexions Classroom offers is a class on parenting.
Franke and Jodi worked together on instructions about parenting styles that formed “honest connection” between parents and children. According to their website, Franke is a certified “mental fitness trainer” with the company.
Both women are openly part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly referred to as Mormons, abbreviated LDS). According to the official LDS Strengthening the Family instruction manual, parenting is a sacred role that should be taken seriously. The manual explains different parenting styles, but notes that the “principles taught in this course most closely resemble those of authoritative parenting” because it is “most consistent with the Scriptures and teachings from the church leaders.” The manual also emphasizes how this style differs from authoritarian parenting styles, which lack “warmth and love.”
However, while Franke and Hildebrant share some ideas with the official LDS manual, they differ in their methods of executing discipline.
According to jodihildebrant.com, a website created as an informational resource about her, but not created by her, Hildebrant “heavily mixes” LDS doctrine within her teachings at Connexions. Highly critical of church leadership, Hildebrant’s lessons teach that her own doctrine is the way of “Truth,” and that “she alone is able to help people find enlightenment and connexion.” This source explains that, as a means of achieving true “connexion” in life, Hildebrant’s teachings encourage students to isolate themselves from others and learn “her doctrine.”
However, although she is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the church has stated publicly they no longer recommend or refer to Hildebrant for LDS Family Services after she shared anonymous details about a client with the church in 2012.
Franke is also LDS and often used the word “repentance” to explain her punishment styles.
In one clip, Franke explains she and her husband excluded their two youngest children from Christmas one year after they failed to repent of poor behavior. Previously, she had kept them home from school and had the kids scrub their home’s floorboards as a punishment, hoping the experience would “really bring pain” that would encourage her kids to change their behavior. However, this was not enough for Franke, so they excluded the children from Christmas celebrations saying she would “literally do anything to invite (them) into repentance.”
In one clip, Franke explains she and her husband excluded their two youngest children from Christmas one year after they failed to repent of poor behavior.
Neighbors allege that, as Franke and Jodi became closer in recent years, Franke’s behavior became increasingly concerning and more socially isolated. According to some neighbors, Franke would leave the home, presumably without her children, for long periods without returning. And even when she was there, Franke’s children seldom played outdoors in their front or back yards. According to neighbors, the home often was quiet, which was surprising considering the number of young children who lived there.
Social media users noticed this change, too, with many commenting that Franke’s views on parenting became much more extreme once she started working with Hildebrandt.
Following Franke and Hildebrant’s recent arrests, old clips from the 8 Passengers channel have flooded social media, especially TikTok.
Although users already suspected something odd was going on in the family, analysis of the videos is becoming more detailed and descriptive now that the women have been arrested on charges of “aggravated child abuse — intentionally or knowingly.”
With these charges offering some validity to the speculative claims made by users in the past, social media content discussing the clips now provides a heftier, more critical analysis of Franke’s parenting styles. Most of this content looks back on previously posted clips and videos in attempts to verify that sketchy behavior from the 8 Passengers channel was, indeed, evidence of child abuse. Others are analyzing how Franke depicted her own children for social media content, some saying she exploited the kids for attention.
Many of the TikToks, YouTube videos and other social media posts are praising authorities for finally arresting Franke, wishing well for the children as they recover from their experiences in the home.
However, many social media users are discussing the event as a drama, with some videos joking about the situation or celebrating the arrest.
And while the reposting users criticize Franke for how she embarrassed or exploited the kids with constant vlogging-style videos, this new conversation resurfacing those same videos is still sensationalizing the alleged abuse, which likely was traumatic for the children to experience. Like any high-profile abuse case that trends on social media, the attention is extreme.
How difficult must it be to see strangers on the internet reposting snapshots of your traumatic experiences?
On the surface, these social media users collectively affirm a noble truth: Child abuse is an injustice that should be exposed and punished. Hopefully, the Franke children can see how the global community of social media users is rallying behind them in support as they heal from what happened.
However, reposting these videos also allows some social media users to capitalize on the abuse, gaining followers for every video they post discussing and analyzing Franke’s arrest. And many of the claims made in this content are still assumptions about what happened. Franke has only been arrested on charges of child abuse. As far as truth-telling goes, this is only the beginning.
Amid our desire to expose and denounce abuse when we see it, we live in a world overtaken by social media. How do we expose abuse without sensationalizing it?
Mallory Challis is a former BNG Clemons Fellow. She is a recent graduate of Wingate University and current student at Wake Forest Divinity School.