The business partner of family YouTube vlogger Ruby Franke is facing scrutiny over her life coaching service, ConneXions, which former patients described as a program that isolated them from loved ones and destroyed marriages.
Before she was arrested alongside Franke on child abuse charges, Jodi Hildebrandt was counseling Mormon couples and families in Utah. Seven former patients, who used her services between 2008 and 2019, told NBC News that Hildebrandt methodically separated spouses, pathologized patients’ behaviors as evidence of various addictions and encouraged people to cut off others who weren’t living in accordance with her teachings.
“The theory was that if you’re meeting with Jodi, then you are all living in truth,” said Stephanie Jones, 29, who was counseled by Hildebrandt with her ex-husband for nine months in 2019. “And so she didn’t want you talking to anyone else about your problem. She wanted you talking to people that were also living in truth. So this is where I started to feel like it kind of got cult-like. She wanted everything to stay in the group. You’re not allowed to have a different opinion than her.”
Hildebrandt, a therapist, was arrested in August. She and Franke were each charged with six counts of felony child abuse — unrelated to her work with ConneXions — after Franke’s injured 12-year-old son escaped from Hildebrandt’s home. Franke’s malnourished 10-year-old daughter was also found in Hildebrandt’s home.
Hildebrandt established ConneXions in 2007, according to her LinkedIn page, although Utah Department of Commerce records show that it was registered as an LLC in April 2018. The service is known for its courses on relationships and parenting, which some former clients say are rooted in the principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — also known as LDS or the Mormon church.
The lessons revolve around concepts of “truth” and “deception,” according to ConneXions slideshow presentations reviewed by NBC News. The slides describe how people live in “distortion” when they allow their wants, needs and experiences to impact their commitments to the “truth.”
Franke, who is listed as a “certified mental fitness trainer” on the ConneXions website, was prominently featured in the service’s videos alongside Hildebrandt. In now-deleted YouTube videos viewed by NBC News, the two preached that those who are not living in “truth,” including children, should be cut off from the rest of their families. None of the clients who spoke to NBC News said Franke counseled them.
Former clients of Hildebrandt’s who spoke with NBC News, all of whom were active members of the church at the time of their treatment, said that Hildebrandt took an extreme approach to LDS teachings in her lessons.
An attorney for Hildebrandt did not respond to repeated requests for comment made via email, by phone and an in-person office visit last week. A representative for LaMar Winward, Franke’s attorney, declined to comment.
A spokesperson for the LDS church also did not respond to a request for comment. The church has also not publicly issued comments on allegations made about Hildebrandt or her recent arrest.
Some former male clients said they were treated indiscriminately for porn addiction
A primary focus in Hildebrandt’s programs, specifically for the men in her treatment, concerned porn and sex addiction, those who spoke to NBC News said.
Hildebrandt previously worked as a therapist specializing in “porn addiction.” Porn addiction is not recognized as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the standard classification manual used by mental health counselors in the United States, although the LDS church encourages people to seek help from LDS-sponsored addiction recovery programs if they struggle with pornography consumption.
Pornography is considered a huge sin by the church, even perceived by some as a gateway to serious crimes like murder, according to John Dehlin, a former therapist and host of the podcast “Mormon Stories,” which seeks to bring awareness to issues within LDS culture. He said LDS members are taught that men are “sexual animals” and women are “the gatekeepers.” Dehlin interviewed several former patients of Hildebrandt’s and reviewed ConneXions material for his podcast.
Five men told NBC News that they were diagnosed with porn or sex addictions by Hildebrandt, although all of them said that they didn’t exhibit any abnormal issues with either.
They said they were put into men’s counseling groups that focused on porn, sex and lust. Group counseling involved weekly hourlong meetings and daily “support calls” in which participants called each other to discuss their therapy goals. They said that in these meetings their peers described getting kicked out of the house or abstaining from sex with their spouses for months at a time as punishment for watching pornography.
Spencer Tibbets, who described his childhood as “extremely sheltered” with little access to technology, said he was sent to Hildebrandt for two months when he was 16 after getting in trouble for obtaining a secret phone to play video games. Hildebrandt moved him from her children’s group to her men’s group so that he could have more in-depth conversations about his treatment goals. The men’s group participants were being treated for porn addiction.
“I had a secret phone, but I didn’t even know what porn was,” Tibbets, now 21, said.
Tibbets said that during support calls, men in the group would describe how they had been separated from their wives because they struggled with porn consumption. Tibbets said that in one call, a group member described incest fantasies to him.
Tibbets said Hildebrandt told him that if he “didn’t accept the Mormon God, [he] would never be able to get help from therapy.” At the time, he was questioning his faith after his father had given him the choice to attend church or not.
Brian Tibbets, 47, father of Spencer Tibbets, said he also saw Hildebrandt with his ex-wife for about four months in early 2018. He said his choice to leave the LDS church caused a strain in their relationship. They placed their three eldest children in Hildebrandt’s courses.
Tibbets’ ex-wife did not respond to a request for comment.
Hildebrandt had previously been disciplined by Utah officials
In 2012, Hildebrandt was disciplined by Utah’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, according to documents obtained by NBC News. She was put on probation for 18 months by the state after she engaged in “unprofessional conduct.”
Hildebrandt disclosed information about a patient, identified as “John Doe,” with LDS church leaders and Brigham Young University officials, according to a 2012 stipulation and order report from DOPL obtained by NBC News. Doe was a student at BYU at the time. She also had a dual relationship with the patient’s wife, “Jane Doe,” whom she was counseling and managing as an intern, which is considered unprofessional. Her license was later reinstated with full privileges on Aug. 6, 2013.
Hildebrandt was taken off of the LDS family services roster after her license was put on probation, according to a 2012 report from The Salt Lake Tribune. But some patients told NBC News she was still informally recommended to them either by their bishops or by loved ones in the church after being removed from the roster.
Adam Paul Steed, 40, who saw Hildebrandt with his then-wife for nine months in 2008, said he is the unnamed patient in the report that led Hildebrandt to be put on probation. He said Hildebrandt tried to treat him for a sex and porn addiction after he started marriage counseling, but he refused. NBC News reviewed a DOPL complaint naming Steed, therapy notes from Steed’s sessions with Hildebrandt and an honor code report from BYU.
Steed said Hildebrandt had made false claims about him to the church, BYU and his ex-wife. He said he lost church privileges, was temporarily suspended from BYU and got divorced due to Hildebrandt’s actions.
“My family got destroyed,” he said. “My life got destroyed.”
Steed, who experienced childhood sexual abuse as a teen, said that Hildebrandt weaponized his experience with abuse against him. His marriage began to deteriorate around nine months into seeing Hildebrandt, who he said had insisted the couple needed to “triple down” on the amount of therapy sessions they were taking.
“[Hildebrandt] was blaming everything on me being a sexual addict at that point,” he said. “She was saying that that every time I said I was a victim of sexual abuse, that that was my addiction speaking. So if I had PTSD and trauma, and I mentioned it, they would confront me that that was my addiction of sexual abuse.”
When they began seeing Hildebrandt, he believed his ex-wife began feeling like she had to “protect” herself and their children from him.
Steed’s ex-wife declined to comment through her attorney Chris Wharton, who said, “Out of respect for the judicial process and the best interests of the parties’ minor children, my client is not providing any further comments at this time.”
Some former female patients say Hildebrandt shamed them for their views
Stephanie Jones, 29, said a bishop in her church referred her and her then-husband to Hildebrandt in 2019 after she alleged that he had been physically and emotionally abusive toward her.
At first, Jones said she loved Hildebrandt’s program because it was the first time she learned about boundaries and codependency. She later felt that the group counseling sessions were not helpful in addressing the abuse in her relationship. Her ex-husband, like other men in Hildebrandt’s program, was treated for a “lust” addiction.
“I don’t feel like she helped with what we were actually there to get help with,” Jones said.
Jones said Hildebrandt helped keep her ex-husband “in line.” But when she told Hildebrandt she wanted to leave him, the therapist encouraged her to stay.
“I do feel like she prolonged me staying with him because his behavior genuinely did improve when we were seeing her, but I think it was just because he didn’t want to get in trouble,” Jones said.
Jones’ ex-husband, who is currently incarcerated for an unrelated aggravated assault, confirmed through his attorney Joseph Rupp that he was put in a group for sex, lust and porn addiction. The lawyer said his client “believes that Stephanie might characterize their relationship as physically or emotionally abusive” but that the client “did not specify.” The ex-husband confirmed via Rupp that Hildebrandt encouraged them to stay together.
Jones said that in the women’s group, women without any other formal mental health diagnosis were treated for “control addiction.” Control addiction is not recognized as a disorder in the DSM-5. Jones said that an example of her addiction was if she tried to appease her husband when she was scared of him. She was told that she was trying to “control his emotions so that [she didn’t] get hurt.”
“Is it fair to call everyone that comes through your program an addict just because you want to be their savior?” Jones said. “She labeled me an addict as well. And she had me through a 12-step program for control.”
Jones was told to write down every way she used her addiction, which she was unable to do. She felt like the diagnosis was too abstract. Still, she had to call people in the women’s group about her supposed problem.
Eliza Tibbets, 19, said she was treated by Hildebrandt at the same time as her brother Spencer in 2018. She said Hildebrandt diagnosed her with a “control addiction” when she was 13 and in the children’s group at the time. She was eventually put into a 12-step program for a “lying addiction” because she wrote secret notes to her neighbors and acquired a secret phone to watch Netflix.
Tibbets didn’t feel like she had a lying problem. When she tried explaining herself, she said Hildebrandt would accuse her of living in “distortion.” When she was in the 12-step program, she was told to write down the ways she used her addiction. She also had to call adult women in Hildebrandt’s program to keep herself accountable.
“I’d never ever felt like any of them, especially Jodi, was like a safe place to go to for therapy,” Tibbets said. “I never felt safe. I always felt like I was getting attacked.”
She said Hildebrandt would often shame her and accuse her of being distorted if she said “something that she perceived as a lie” or was “not being completely compliant with her.”
Tibbets made it through four steps before she moved in with her father. They both stopped seeing Hildebrandt by the end of 2018.
The Utah Division of Professional Licensing, as the agency is now known, said last week that Hildebrandt voluntarily surrendered her mental health counseling license on Sept. 19. Her license is still active, but limited. She is not being formally disciplined by DOPL, but she will be unable to practice if she is released from jail, according to a stipulation and order report from the agency obtained by NBC News.
“Given the heinous abuse allegations, the agency felt that the surrender of the license was the best course of action to protect the safety of Hildebrandt’s patients and clients,” Margaret Busse, executive director of the Utah Department of Commerce, said in a statement.
Hildebrandt and Franke are both being held without bail until their next court hearing, which a judge has not yet scheduled.
CORRECTION (Sept. 25, 2023, 9 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the nature of Adam Steed’s sessions with Jodi Hildebrandt. He was not treated for sex and porn addiction, which he says he refused.
Daysia Tolentino is a culture and trends reporter for NBC News.