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23 February 2024

When fundamentalism fuels child abuse

The YouTuber Ruby Franke, who was convicted of abusing her children, claims she believed they were “evil and possessed”.

By Amelia Tait

Ruby Franke spent eight years offering parenting advice on the internet – on 20 February she was sentenced to at least four years in prison for child abuse. The 42-year-old Utah mother of six amassed more than 2.3 million followers after starting a family YouTube channel in 2015, but was arrested in August 2023 after two of her children were found in a malnourished condition. Franke pleaded guilty to child abuse, and could be imprisoned for up to 30 years. The prosecutor Eric Clarke said two of Franke’s children lived in a “concentration camp-like setting” and were deprived of food, water, beds and entertainment.

Franke, who is Mormon, apologised for “twisting God’s words and distorting his doctrine” at her sentencing. She believed that her children were “evil and possessed” and needed to be punished in order to “repent”. Franke and her life-coaching colleague, the 54-year-old Jodi Hildebrandt, beat, tied up and kicked Franke’s children. “I was so disoriented that I believed dark was light and right was wrong,” Franke said. “I was led to believe that this world was an evil place, filled with cops who control, hospitals that injure, government agencies that brainwash, church leaders who lie and lust, husbands who refuse to protect and children who need abuse.”

There is a long and documented relationship between religious fundamentalism and child abuse in America. In his 1972 book How to Rear Children, the Independent Baptist pastor Jack Hyles wrote that spanking should “leave stripes” and last “until the child’s will is broken”. Hyles quoted Proverbs 20:30 as justification: “The blueness of a wound cleanseth away evil.” One child whose parents followed Hyles’ teachings recalls being lashed with a leather belt 300 times and alleged that Hyles helped her parents avoid arrest after the authorities were called.

One 1994 book written by another Independent Baptist preacher and his wife has been linked to three children’s deaths. To Train Up a Child, written by Michael and Debi Pearl, advocates withholding food, spanking with plastic tubes and spraying children with cold hose water. The Pearls wrote that a parent should “use whatever force is necessary” on a rebellious son in order to “defeat him totally”. The couple have quoted the biblical proverb, “He that spareth his rod hateth his son.”

In 2011, the teenager Hana Grace-Rose Williams was found dead face down in her adoptive parents’ garden; she had died of hypothermia and malnutrition. The New York Times reported that her mother had praised the Pearls’ book and that it was found in the family home. In his defence, Michael Pearl said: “If you find a 12-step book in an alcoholic’s house, you wouldn’t blame the book.” The book was also owned by Lynn Paddock, who was convicted of murdering her four-year-old adoptive son in 2008. Parents Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz, who beat their seven-year-old adopted daughter to death with plastic tubing in 2010, told police that they followed the Pearls’ teachings. Michael and Debi Pearl have denied responsibility for any deaths, arguing that their book explicitly warns against abuse and emphasises love and care. 

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Franke’s name joins a long list of fundamentalist Christian parents prosecuted for harming their children. In her book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (2020), the historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez argues that religious disciplining rose in popularity in the 1960s in response to the social upheaval of the decade. She argues that books like Dare to Discipline, published by the evangelical psychologist James Dobson in 1970, promised that “an authoritarian family structure would preserve order, discipline and security – not only of the family but of the nation”.

How can beating children be the solution to a world in crisis, and yet after decades of disciplining, fundamentalists such as Franke still find the world to be “an evil place”? Few seemed to have noticed the irony, and for many, punishing children retains its appeal. Donald Trump has promised that if re-elected, he will “end the leftist takeover of school discipline and juvenile justice” by involving the Department of Justice in schools. “When troubled youth are out of control, they’re out on the streets and they’re going wild, we will stop it,” he has said. “The consequences are swift, certain and strong.”

The worse irony is that Christian fundamentalists often claim to be crusaders who are “protecting” children from the ills of American state schoolssex educationcritical race theory and LGBT+ rights. In May 2022, more than a year before her arrest, Franke posted a tearful video complaining that her daughter’s school played “immoral” music in dance classes; she argued that the school’s principal was not protecting the children from “the world”. Crying in the front seat of her car as the camera rolled, Franke ended the video with the words: “And in the end, each of us will account to God for how we protected kids.”

[See also: We must do more to protect the children of YouTube]

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