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Ruby Franke and 8 passengers: The rise and fall of a parenting influencer

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Image source, @moms_of_truth

A woman who sprang to fame giving controversial parenting advice has been charged with six counts of child abuse. What happened to Ruby Franke and her family?

On a late August morning in Utah, a 12-year-old boy covered in open wounds knocked at the door of a neighbour’s house asking for food and water.

He had escaped a nearby home moments before, by climbing out a window and running away with duct tape still on his ankles, police say.

The boy was taken to hospital due to malnourishment and “deep lacerations from being tied up with rope,” according to the arrest record.

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Five other children found in the same house were also taken into care and Ruby Franke, a parenting influencer and mother of six, was arrested. This week she was charged with six counts of felony child abuse.

How did it come to this, for a woman who imparted parenting advice to two million YouTube subscribers?

Breakthrough and backlash

For some, the arrest was no surprise, given the hundreds of videos over a number of years that had sparked criticism of her strict parenting style.

Ms Franke was behind the 8 Passengers YouTube channel which launched in 2015, during a boom in popularity for an array of family vlogging channels – a genre in their own right – that were making money on the platform.

A year later, her videos had gained tens of thousands of views. She told local news at the time that filming herself with her family helped her “live in the present and just enjoy the kids”.

The videos she edited were a window into her life, showing a typical Mormon suburban family home-schooling, cooking, eating and chatting away together.

But some moments raised eyebrows.

Ruby and Kevin Franke with their six children in 2018

Image source, 8 Passengers

In one video, she could be seen telling her sons they would “lose the privilege to eat dinner” if they continued play-fighting. In another, she said that her six-year-old “needed” to go hungry after forgetting to take her lunch to school.

“Hopefully nobody gives her food and nobody steps in and gives her a lunch, because then she’s not going to learn,” she told the camera.

They had been trying to teach their children to “live responsibly” as “masters of themselves”, her husband Kevin Franke later said of the incident.

Despite the criticism, the Frankes’ authoritarian parenting approach continued and the audience kept building. Experts believe her success reflects a modern anxiety among parents that can lead them to seek out radical and harmful solutions.

“For parents who feel lost and desperate, particularly when it’s dealing with problematic behaviour, extreme techniques become appealing, particularly if they see results,” parenting psychologist Dr Maryhan Baker told the BBC.

The success of family vlogging channels like Ms Franke’s can play on people’s fears about their own parenting skills, child development specialist Dr Siggie Cohen explained.

“Parents are scared to make mistakes, and look for someone that seems to them to be fully in charge and in control.”

Beanbag sleeping

An off-the-cuff comment made by Ms Franke’s teenage son brought her parenting style to the attention of more mainstream audiences outside of the family vlogging sphere.

In a 2020 video, he revealed that his bedroom had been taken away for seven months and he was instead sleeping on a beanbag, after playing pranks on his sibling. According to Ms Franke in the same video, her son had shown he was unable to manage a bedroom and was offered alternatives like a guest bed or inflatable mattress.

The tone of their discussion was light, with the story drawing giggles from Ms Franke and her other child. But many viewers were disturbed by the incident.

A petition started by one demanding an investigation brought in thousands of signatures and child protective services were called.

The outrage led to some YouTube and TikTok users making their own videos about the family, gaining millions of views. Older clips, such as those showing Ms Franke describing withholding meals as a disciplinary measure, resurfaced and made headlines.

In response to the controversy, Ruby and Kevin Franke told the news website Insider some accounts had “malicious” intentions and purposefully took the clips out of context.

“They were purely seeking to throw hate. That was their only objective. A reasonable person would not have seen that video and thought: ‘She is a child abuser’,” Ms Franke told the site.

End of channel

The controversy effectively marked the beginning of the end for the 8 passengers YouTube channel. Daily videos whittled down to two or three videos per week, and then none at all before it was deleted.

But Ruby Franke remained active on social media, forming a new advice channel in June 2022 called ConneXions with business partner and counsellor Jodi Nan Hildebrandt.

The content they made together had a small fraction of the audience 8 passengers had in its prime – Ms Franke once claimed that venture helped her make millions. She left that lucrative world, she said, to save her children.

Recent posts on an Instagram account the two share called Moms of Truth offer parenting guidance, urging followers to avoid “coping strategies” to distract from the “pain and discomfort of Reality/Truth”.

It is not clear what this reality or truth looks like but the coping strategies they list include social media, exercise and socialising.

Ruby Franke and Jodi Nan Hildebrandt

Image source, ConneXions YouTube channel

‘Long road ahead’

On 30 August, the two women were arrested after Ms Franke’s malnourished son made his escape. Days later, they were charged with six counts of child abuse.

“Justice is being served,” her eldest daughter wrote on Instagram, claiming she had been trying to raise concerns about her estranged family with police and child protection services for years.

Ms Franke’s arrest “needed to happen,” her sisters wrote in a joint statement, saying they had previously kept quiet for the sake of the children involved.

Neither Ms Franke nor Ms Hildebrandt has responded to the BBC’s request for comment. The law firm representing Ms Franke told the BBC that they would not make a statement.

Kevin Franke’s lawyer has distanced him from the abuse allegations, saying he had no role in them.

“He is a good person,” Randy Kester told Good Morning America, claiming that the Frankes have been living in separate homes for the past 13 months.

Ms Franke’s children are now safe, according to her sisters and estranged daughter, who said they have “a long road ahead” to recovery.

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