When a child suffers abuse in our community, we’re outraged.

How could someone harm a child? Why did the parent(s) allow this to happen? Why was there no one to help?

It’s easy to place blame—on the abuser, on bystanders, on an imperfect system—but not often do we shoulder the blame ourselves.

Why weren’t WE, as a community, able to stop this?

Increasingly, abuse prevention research and practice has begun to focus attention on community-based efforts that work to change social norms, enhance economic opportunities, and improve the social environments for all families.

In Great Falls, one such community-based effort is Toby’s House, a crisis nursery named for October “Toby” Perez, who on June 24, 2011, sustained broken bones, extensive bruising, and brain swelling at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. She suffered for hours before receiving medical attention and was pronounced brain dead the following morning at 1:28am.

She was only two years old.

“This could have and should have been prevented,” says Leesha Ford, board chair of Toby’s House. “The goal of our crisis nursery is to keep kids out of this kind of violence and uncertainty.”

Toby’s House is designed as a refuge for children who might otherwise be left in a hazardous environment. Parents who are experiencing an immediate crisis (e.g. they have to work but their babysitter fell through), can drop off their children at Toby’s House (for free). Trained staff checks in each child, inquires about the crisis they’re experiencing, and offers parents any pertinent resources that can alleviate the crisis long term (e.g. reliable, affordable child care).

After check-in, children are taken to a more secure area that contains a large playroom and sleeping rooms. Toby’s House provides meals, clothing, and diapers (if necessary). Parents can leave children for up to 72 hours before long term care for children must be arranged.

“What we’re trying to do is reduce stress on both the parents and the kids,” explains Ford. “We’re giving them hope, and hope is the antidote to stress. We want to build community resiliency.”

In 2017 alone, 551 abuse and neglect cases were reported in Cascade County. Toby’s House hopes to see this number decline, and to alleviate some of the burden on state agencies and other volunteer nonprofits.

“We know this service will be well-utilized,” says Ford.

Right now, Toby’s House is on track to open in Great Falls in 2019. The location for the crisis nursery is undergoing environmental surveys for safety, and the organization is getting the word out with hopes of gathering support.

“At this point, we’re looking for assistance with grant writing and fundraising. People can subscribe to newsletters on the website if interested. We’ll begin training volunteers closer to opening,” explains Ford.

Among those getting the word out about Toby’s House is April Hall, October’s paternal grandmother (whose son was serving in Afghanistan at the time of October’s death). Since the tragedy in 2011, she’s actively fought to improve child abuse prevention practices in the state.

“She’s still very vocal and does fundraisers to keep Toby’s memory alive,” says Ford. “We can’t let the tragedy of Toby happen to other kids.”

For more information on Toby’s House, visit tobyshousemt.org.

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