Parents who abuse children

One never really knows what goes on inside other people’s homes and families. I have lived long enough to learn that families that seem to live serene, if not idyllic, lives can harbor some unpleasant secrets. Because of that, I try not to be too judgmental when I hear that families have troubles because one can never know what stresses people might be experiencing that cause them to behave in ways that are not seen by others.

But the thing that I find hardest to understand is when parents abuse their children. It seems like such a perverse distortion of the basic impulse among mammals to take care of their children until that they can go out alone and make their way in the adult world.

The case of Ruby Franke is the cruelty to her children on display. She and her business partner Jodi Hildebrandt gave parenting advice on a popular YouTube channel using her children as props. There are many such sites that use children this way, raising concerns that the children’s privacy is being invaded by their parents without their consent.

But violating children’s privacy was the least of the problems,

While reading the sentencing recommendation, state prosecutor Eric Clarke compared the environment Franke’s children faced to a “concentration camp-like setting,” and said that Franke “committed horrible acts of child abuse.” While addressing Hildebrandt’s charges, Clarke called her a “significant threat” to the community. 

In December, Franke pleaded guilty to four counts of child abuse and admitted that she tortured her children, including the now 12-year-old boy who escaped Hildebrandt’s home. In the plea agreement, which contained graphic details of abuse, Franke said her son was often kept bound, and that her nine-year-old daughter was made to do manual labor outside in the hot sun with no water or shoes. Both children were often told they were possessed and that their punishments were necessary to help them. 

The boy told officials that Hildebrandt had tied him up and used home remedies to treat wounds caused by the restraints, according to court documents reviewed by KUTV. 

They were only exposed when one of the children, a malnourished 12-year-old son with open wounds and bound with duct tape, climbed out of a window at the home of Hildebrandt, and went to a neighbor’s house to ask for food and water.

So what causes a parent to do such a thing? Readers will not be surprised that religion often plays a role.

The crimes were motivated by their religious faith, said Washington County Attorney Eric Clarke in a statement.

“This is a case about religious extremism. The defendants appear to have fully believed that the abuse they inflicted was necessary to teach the children how to properly repent for imagined ‘sins’ and to cast the evil spirits out of their bodies,” Clarke said. “Hildebrandt regularly stated that God communicated directly with her and gave her directions. Franke accepted Hildebrandt as her leader and followed her instructions and guidance.”

The cult-like subservience of Franke to Hildebrandt mirrors that of people who enroll in religious cults. They are willing to give up their own sense of reason and what is right and wrong and unquestioningly accept what someone else says simply because that person claims to communicate with God. While being willing to unquestioningly follow someone who seems to be enlightened is not uncommon, it is shocking when that overrides the normal love and concern that a parent has for their child.

At her sentencing, Franke apologized to her children, saying she had “believed dark was light and right was wrong. I would do anything in this world for you. I took from you all that was soft, and safe and good.”

Franke also told the court: “For the past four years, I’ve chosen to follow counsel and guidance that has led me into a dark delusion,” she said. “My distorted version of reality went largely unchecked as I would isolate from anyone who challenged me.”

Unfortunately, since much of this kind of abuse occurs behind closed doors, we do not know how prevalent it might be.


  1. birgerjohansson says

    If they hate the kids, or just consider them a nuisance there is the option of letting them be adopted, so they at least get parents who appreciate them. But that would require admitting failure as parents…

  2. says

    I’ve this idea that weakening family bonds to the benefit of group bonds might be a factor in abusive punishment. I don’t think it’s a conscious goal mostly, just that there’s a group effect that might explain some of it. That would explain some of the patterns of frustrated, resentful, manipulatable mobs. I’m not ready to look up the details of that “premature aging of the amygdala” yet, I’m still getting the basic knowledge I think I need for it, but that’s probably a point to it.

    A flawed and ultimately self-defeating means of control. I hope to get my parents to the point where I’m willing to trust what they might have to say about things before I can remember. But they can’t take basic demands that they support things they expect other people to respect and obey. And basic demands they justify their disparaging beliefs about others, and reliance on insults like “hogwash” instead of actual responses to their child. So I haven’t mentioned I remember yet.

    I don’t judge those who cut off contact, but that would be too easy for them. At the very least they should have words to go with the things they needed force for. They are showing me it was based on nothing. I’ll tackle the rightness or wrongness of it later with them. This hook may be better.

  3. Matt G says

    I started with Reddit at the start of the pandemic with the Herman Cain Awards, a subreddit which keeps track of Covid deniers. Through that I came across a subreddit called Raised By Narcissists, and it demonstrates quite clearly that there are parents out there who have no business having children.

  4. Katydid says

    The Franke family lives in Utah, a place where there are a whole lot of religious delusions and mistreatment of women and children--it’s baked into the religion itself. Men are the heads of the family who get their own planets when they die, and the only way women can ascend is if the men call their names. If they don’t please their husband for any reason, they’re not going to ascend. Children are the possession of the fathers.

    Utah is also the place where all the MLM scams come from, because the people are raised to believe in magical, unbelievable things.

  5. lanir says

    I really have a hard time swallowing the idea that abuse is caused by religion. In this respect I feel like religion is similar to alcohol. You can be impaired with either one but it doesn’t make you stop being yourself. I don’t think you can be a little or even a lot impaired and hurt someone this obviously, this consistently. At that point being impaired is just an excuse.

    I don’t like religion but I’m not willing to believe it turns people into monsters who have no idea what they’re doing. And while it’s not explicitly presented that way I feel like that’s what mentioning religion at times like this is meant to do: provide some kind of cover for awful behavior. “Oh, she was just too religious to know that she shouldn’t torture, starve, and dehydrate her children.” Yeah, no. Just no.

  6. says

    I specifically left religion out of my story even though that was the context because plenty of backgrounds can do what mine did. There’s a conservative military part too. There are many ways for this situation to evolve.

  7. John Morales says

    lanir, you are right, but you are not entirely right.

    Religion can be sufficient, but is not necessary.

    My wife worked for some years in government child protection services — clerical work in the office only — but eventually had to quit, it was getting to her, and that’s just doing the admin work and the filing.
    Basically, for some people, children are just things, for others, they’re objects upon which they can vent their worst impulses. It is very awful, but very obviously part of human nature.

    Anyway, religion or the lack of it doesn’t particularly matter much, but it certainly doesn’t help much, either.

  8. Silentbob says

    @ 6 lanir

    Alcohol lowers inhibitions.

    It’s not a creed that tells you brutal suffering is the path to redemption.

  9. John Morales says

    … a bald statement …

    Heh. Bold is what you intended. Still, homophony is a thing to the semi-illiterate.

  10. lanir says


    …you are not entirely right.

    Yeah I kind of suspected. That’s why I tried to explain what I was seeing as my possible bias. Not sure if I did a very good job of it or not.

    I guess what I was trying to get at is that religion in this context seems like a facade to hide the real motivations rather than being the real motivation itself. Having religion doesn’t stop people from making their own choices. For example the Catholic church teaches that contraception is wrong. But by a considerable margin most Catholics use it without a second thought.

  11. lanir says

    @12 Silentbob

    It was an analogy. In this one point, these two things are comparable. I wasn’t intending to suggest they were the same overall.

    That sort of thing is useful to blow away the usual framing. Which can let you make a point about something familiar without it being rejected out of hand simply because it doesn’t agree with an already formed opinion.

  12. Katydid says

    Wow, I’m disappointed I have to spell it out, but here it is, about religious faith and child abuse:

    * if someone has been raised to believe strongly that children are the property of the parents to do with whatever they want and then that person has children…the children are susceptible to abuse

    * if someone is raised to believe that sparing the rod means spoiling the child…the children are susceptible to abuse

    * if someone is raised to believe that any sign of child independence is an affront to the parent…the children are susceptible to abuse

    * if someone is raised to believe the worst thing in the world is not conforming exactly to the religion’s precepts and the children do not because they are gay/neuro-atypical/creative/nonbinary or simply born female and cishet…the children are susceptible to abuse

    You combine them all, and you see a lot of abuse to children.

    There are many, many accounts of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, etc., who have fled the faith as teens or young adults because they were being abused.

  13. moarscienceplz says

    “I recommend the film Mommy Dearest. NOT a feel-good movie.”
    Yeah, you probably shouldn’t. First, when the book came out, many people who knew Joan said it was an unfair picture of her, including many of her other children. Second, the most notorious scene in the film, the coat hanger beating, is not in the book.
    (I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, but enough people have that if Wikipedia is wrong about this, it would have been shouted from the rooftops.)

  14. brightmoon says

    I had a narcissistic parents, one was religious the other was atheist. Victorian type ,religion based ,sexual repression from one made it worse. The main excuse for the abuse was the female-children-are-just-property one. Even people living in the same house might not be aware of abuse because they are so careful to hide it from others. Of course there are flying monkeys who can also help hide mistreatment from outsiders too.

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