Ruby Franke's ex-husband asks lawmakers to reform Utah's child welfare laws

Kevin Franke speaks to reporters at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday after calling on lawmakers to adopt reforms to child welfare laws.

Kevin Franke speaks to reporters at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday after calling on lawmakers to adopt reforms to child welfare laws. (Josh Szymanik, KSL-TV)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Kevin Franke thinks about what could have happened in the worst-case scenario on a daily basis had his son not escaped from a window to seek help last August.

Franke's two young children were found severely malnourished at their home in Ivins in Washington County, revelations that led to charges against the children's mother, Ruby Franke, and her business partner Jodi Hildebrandt pleading guilty to abusing the two children, aged 11 and 9.

"I have those thoughts of 'What if?' on a daily basis; it's part of the trauma and the post-trauma that I deal with," Franke told reporters in his first public interview since his ex-wife's arrest. "I'm incredibly grateful for the heroics of my son in saving his life, his sister's life, and probably his other sister in our family as well. He truly was a hero."

Franke spoke with reporters at the Capitol in Salt Lake City after addressing a legislative panel Tuesday morning to advocate for reforms to child welfare law in the state. He said several "loopholes" in the law allowed for ongoing abuse and neglect of his children, and he said he is working toward legislative fixes to prevent similar things from happening.

Although he said he wasn't there to tell his own story, Franke said his comments to lawmakers were in part an effort by he and his adult daughter, Shari Franke, to "make the best of our lives moving forward."

"Part of my healing is being here today, to open my mouth, to put myself in this position that's been terribly uncomfortable for me — but if I can make a difference, then I want to do that," he said.

Franke read from a joint statement he and his oldest adult daughter Shari Franke prepared. He told the handful of lawmakers on the Legislature's Child Welfare Legislative Oversight Panel he had been manipulated and misled by his wife and Hildebrandt and that he "was selfish, narcissistic, enabling to my children, lustful, and a significant danger to my family." He described being in isolation from his family for more than a year.

Franke said Hildebrandt, a licensed mental health counselor, "knew the Utah child welfare system like the back of her hand," and "masterfully coached Ruby in navigating the child welfare loopholes."

"In a nutshell, all they had to do was 1) keep the children isolated from the world; 2) ignore the phone calls from (the Division of Child and Family Services); and, 3) not answer the door when DCFS and/or police knocked," he said.

Because of the isolation of his children, he said, the government was unable to gather sufficient evidence, under current laws, to intervene on behalf of the children.

"Laws need to change," he told the panel, suggesting lawmakers allow red flags reported by multiple individuals be "considered sufficient merit" to place children in temporary protective custody, strengthen laws around emotional abuse, and clarify and strengthen laws regarding child abandonment.

"These individuals should no longer be able to hide child abuse by simply ignoring the phone calls and door knocks from DCFS caseworkers," he said.

Franke also asked lawmakers to consider auditing the knowledge the state's Division of Professional Licensing had about Hildebrandt, who he said used the title of a "life coach" — which is not regulated in state law — in some instances to avoid following professional standards.

"A licensed mental health professional should not be able to '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,'" he said.

He told reporters he was actively working with lawmakers to pursue legislative changes, though he acknowledged the issues he sees are likely not going to "be resolved overnight."

Tonya Myrup, director at Utah's Division of Child and Family Services, acknowledged cases involving "uncooperative" families "are some of the most difficult that DCFS sees." She told the panel the division often attempts to interview children at school when it is in session but extreme cases, such as the Franke case, present greater hurdles.

"Sometimes they're very indoctrinated, they might be fearful," she said of the children in those cases. "And so sometimes the interviews with children may not be enough or a school may be out of session as well."

When that happens, she said, caseworkers try to gather as much information as possible from family, friends or neighbors and sometimes take "extreme efforts" along with law enforcement to try to reach the family.

"But, unfortunately, there are times when after those efforts ... that we may just not have enough to legally intervene any further," she said.

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Bridger Beal-Cvetko covers Utah politics, Salt Lake County communities and breaking news for KSL.com. He is a graduate of Utah Valley University.

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