Brantley Welford would have loved seeing the dozens of friends and family together Sunday at the Eldridge Community Center, his aunt Jenna Bruck said, loving and supporting each other.
"He'd be excited," Bruck said. "He loved people."
The group gathered to celebrate the four-year-old's life and support his family in their quest to find justice for him and others experiencing child abuse.
Brantley was killed while under the care of Dylan Andrew Diericx, who was in a relationship with his mother, Victoria Welford. Diericx was released on bond from an Indiana jail after being charged with neglect of a dependent resulting in death, a level-one felony punishable by 20 to 40 years in prison.
He died the day before his fifth birthday.
The atmosphere felt subdued as people trickled into the community center, shaking hands and hugging those they knew and writing their names and memories of Brantley in a guest book. A long table displayed school projects and family photos.
Spaghetti and pizza made up the main course, with circus peanuts, peanut and regular M&Ms sitting in bowls on the tables — all Brantley Welford's favorites.
Pictures and toy vehicles served as centerpieces, showing Brantley and some of the things he loved. Bruck said he loved being active and outside, helping with chores at the farm and playing baseball and soccer — though baseball was his favorite.
"Cardinals, unfortunately," Bruck joked about Brantley's favorite baseball team.
"Cubs fan, here," she said, pointing to herself.
What couldn't be shown with pictures and toys was Brantley's love of people and knowing he was doing a good job. He sought positive reassurance, Bruck said.
"He was a happy, happy boy," Marcy McBride, a family friend, said.
As the room began to fill with groups, the mood lightened some. Friends caught up, kids played and people left cards and donations in a box. Some scanned a QR code to buy t-shirts from the website Bruck created, called "Justice for Brantley."
Donations will be distributed to Together We Rise, a nonprofit helping children in foster care, a child abuse program that's being developed at a Fort Wayne hospital, and baseball scholarships.
Brantley and his sister were put into foster care after Victoria Welford and the kids' biological dad, Jay Welford, lost custody in 2018 due to alleged medical abuse against Brantley's sister. The parents' rights were terminated in August 2020, and the kids' foster family began the adoption process.
Victoria and Jay both appealed, but only Victoria had her rights reinstated. The kids returned to living with her — and Diericx — April 1. After Brantley's death, his sister went to stay with her paternal grandmother.
McBride said a lot of people in that room want to see changes made to the laws that allowed Brantley go back to his biological mother, and more awareness in general of child abuse.
"Brantley was a fun child, and he deserved more from the court system," she said.
Bruck expressed her appreciation for those who came to the celebration of life, and said there's been an outpouring of support from those who knew Brantley and never want to see something like what happened to him, happen again.
"Every little bit counts, and just knowing that we've built this small army for him," Bruck said."