By EMMALEE C. TORISK
The Mahoning Valley learned a year ago of the brutal death of Teddy Foltz, a 14-year-old many remember as polite and loving with a special fondness for giving hugs.
After his death, details emerged about abuse he suffered during his last few years: He was repeatedly punched, had his head slammed against walls, was forced to stand outside until frostbitten, made to walk on hot coals, and hit with pool sticks and bars of soap — all at the hands of his mother’s then-boyfriend, Zaryl Bush.
On the night of Jan. 21, 2013, in the aftermath of Teddy’s failed attempt to run away from home, Bush beat the boy so severely that he was admitted to St. Elizabeth Health Center for severe head trauma. He died five days later.
Those associated with Teddy’s life and the aftermath of his death are reflecting today.
Lilly Foltz still carries pictures of her nephew on her cellphone. She periodically flips through them to show the staggering changes that he underwent in his last few months.
The photos are taken from Facebook, because from the time her sister, Shain Widdersheim, began dating Bush, Foltz wasn’t allowed to see Teddy or his twin brothers. The rest of the family was similarly excluded.
Widdersheim did a “total 360,” Foltz said, and her life became all about Bush.
Foltz had her suspicions, so she started paying more attention to the photos Widdersheim would often post online. With each new photo, she noticed new, troubling signs of abuse.
“The children were losing weight dramatically,” Foltz said. “It’s not like we had unreasonable doubts.”
Teddy — who had long maintained a normal weight, and was even a bit “chunky,” she said — became thinner with every picture. Within weeks, clothing that once fit snugly had begun to hang off of his bruised and scraped body.
Foltz would later learn that Teddy’s teachers at Struthers — who had contacted the county children services agency, as she and other family members and friends had also done — claimed he was caught eating food off the floor there, because he was so hungry.
She said she heard, too, that Bush had put her nephews on a liquid diet consisting of canned soup and Jell-O in an attempt to cleanse their bodies, and that right before Widdersheim pulled them out of the city’s schools to home school them in October 2012, Teddy “begged and pleaded” to stay.
She said it haunts her that no one listened.
“We need to make people more involved, so people would actually have to start listening when phone calls are made,” Foltz said. “Even if we save one child, it’s worth it.”
April Williams remembers hearing a lot of stories about how Teddy’s bruises were from his brothers, or from a fall on the bathroom floor. But she knew the stories weren’t true.
When Williams found out that Teddy was in the hospital, she wasn’t surprised.
“I knew it was a possibility for the abuse to go that far,” said Williams, a family friend who had known Teddy from birth. “But I was hoping it would never go that far.”
Teddy’s withdrawal from public school expedited this process, Williams added.
It was too easy for Widdersheim to take him out, she said, and too easy for his abuse to go unnoticed when he didn’t have to appear in school every day.
“Quite frankly, it was the only reason why he was still alive,” Williams said. “This sounds terrible, but they were a little bit cautious of how badly they beat him because he still had to go to school.”
In mid-December, in an attempt to offer school-age children greater protection against abuse and to provide a larger safety net between the public school system and home schooling, state Sen. Capri S. Cafaro of Liberty, D-32nd, proposed Senate Bill 248, known as “Teddy’s Law.”
A week later, facing the ire of home-school advocates, Cafaro withdrew it.
The bill would have required children services agencies to recommend whether a child should be taken out of public schools to be home schooled, or admitted to an Internet- or computer-based community school. The recommendation would have been based on background checks of parents and guardians and interviews in the home and with the children themselves.
Members of the home-schooling community said it invaded their privacy.
But Cafaro said that was never the intent of Teddy’s Law.
“It eclipsed what we were really trying to get at, which is preventing child abuse,” Cafaro said.
She added that a revised version of Teddy’s Law, which will not at all address home schooling, is in the works. It will focus on how the children-services system and the criminal- justice system can better protect children from abuse — and on how to ensure that those who commit such crimes will be punished accordingly.
“I want to be clear that we are not giving up on Teddy’s Law,” Cafaro said. “We need to find something to correct these injustices. We certainly don’t want any more Teddys in Ohio.”
Kelly Mathews Plummer said she is well aware that nothing will bring back her godson.
In Teddy’s memory, Plummer has made it her mission to ensure that no child feels as though he has to live in fear, as Teddy and his twin brothers had. She recalled phone calls with Teddy in particular, during which he assured his godmother that “everything was fine.”
In reality, though, the boys knew that if they revealed the truth, they would be punished to an even greater extent. So they kept quiet.
“Don’t be afraid to let somebody know,” Plummer said.
Plummer added that she’s hoping to use the Teddy Foltz Memorial Fund, which was started a few months after his death, to establish a scholarship for a member of the Hubbard High School Class of 2017 — Teddy’s graduating class — and to donate to organizations that work to prevent child abuse.
And to Sara Foltz, Teddy’s grandmother, what’s most important is that people don’t forget about Teddy and what he endured. What happened to him could easily happen to another child.
“We want to make them more aware that it could happen to anybody,” Foltz said. “People in the community, like neighbors, and in school need to be more aware of what’s going on. If they suspect abuse, they need to turn it in.”
Detective Jeff Lewis of the Struthers Police Department won’t soon forget Jan. 23, 2013, the day he was called to St. Elizabeth’s to examine Teddy’s injuries.
Everything about these injuries — from the bruise across the boy’s chest and the one on his hand to his severely frostbitten feet — was suspicious, and definitely not consistent with the story Widdersheim clung to: that Teddy had accidentally fallen and hurt himself.
“There was no way that was any accident,” Lewis said. Struthers police were contacted that day by a family member. If they hadn’t been, they might have never known.
Lewis said he in part blames problems with “information sharing” — among police, children-services agencies, and other organizations designed to protect — as a reason Teddy fell through the cracks.
Though there were repeated claims of child abuse to various organizations, they were lost in the shuffle, and nothing happened until it was too late, he said.
“You just have to look at all of them that way now,” Lewis said.