It was around Christmas in 2006 when Leslie Evans reached her breaking point. That day, she said, her drinking, abusive husband attempted to choke her. She was pregnant with their fourth child.
Today, Evans seems at peace with what happened to her and her children. But for years during her marriage, psychological and physical abuse was the norm. She recounts how her former husband put guns to her head, locked their children in their rooms for hours while she was at work, and rammed her head into doors.
When she heard her oldest daughter giving a report to the Tucson Police Department about the choking incident, she finally knew she had to leave the situation.
"I had already kind of blocked what had happened, and she said, 'My daddy was choking my mommy,'" Evans said. "I was still thinking they weren't really hearing what was going on (and) they didn't really feel what was going on, but this was totally affecting them. A 5-year-old shouldn't have to be making reports like that."
Evans and her four children—Cicely, 7, Epiphany, 6, Robbie, 4, and Amir, 1—are now putting their lives back together. They have received support from a number of organizations in Tucson who have given them shelter, legal help and therapy.
However, the current budget crisis in Arizona has cut off one of their lifelines: Healthy Families, a state program funded through the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES) that works with new families to develop parenting skills and create strong families in order to prevent child abuse and neglect.
Since 1991, Healthy Families has provided in-home services for children from birth to age 5. Staffers visit every hospital in Arizona and screen roughly half of all new mothers for risk factors for child abuse or neglect. They're looking for substance abuse, troubled finances, a history of past abuse or other potential problem signs.
"The goal is to touch as many of those new parents as possible," said Eric Schindler, president and CEO of Child and Family Resources, which employs a majority of Healthy Families workers in Southern Arizona.
Families offered a spot in the program can meet with a case worker to work on goals they have for their new family, said Penelope Jacks, Southern Arizona director for the Children's Action Alliance, an organization that lobbies on behalf of children.
"What they do, basically, is child-abuse prevention before there is even a whisper of a problem," Jacks said. "These young mothers, primarily ... become tremendously bonded with their Healthy Families support staff workers who at the beginning may be coming every day."
But on Friday, Feb. 13, a day Schindler refers to as "black Friday," Healthy Families received a $10,750,000 cut to its budget for the fiscal year 2009, which ends on June 30. That is about 75 percent of the Healthy Families funding for fiscal year 2009.
As a result, approximately 50 to 60 Healthy Families workers were laid off, and approximately 3,500 families, including Evans and her children, are losing their services.
Evans got involved with Healthy Families when she was in the hospital after the birth of Amir. Her public-health nurse recommended the program because of the number of times she was in the hospital during her pregnancy due to the physical abuse, and the number of times her husband had to be escorted away from the hospital.
She met with her case worker, Emily Clifford, who helped her set goals following the birth of Amir.
"At that time, I still wanted to put back my relationship with my husband, and probably just learn more about my baby," Evans said. "Even though I had three other children, I really missed out on their younger years due to the abuse."
Clifford came to Evans' home initially about once a week and involved her daughters and her new son in games, activities and crafts that taught the family about healthy development and communication. Clifford also suggested that Evans and her daughters would benefit from therapy.
Therapist Jessica Jordan—who specializes in domestic-violence cases—worked with both Evans and her children. Evans had Jordan on speed dial; she met with Evans twice a week and over the course of a year helped Evans gain the strength to leave the relationship and file for divorce.
"On Feb. 5, I presented to the court a decree that he had signed, and our divorce became final at 9:22 a.m.," Evans said with a smile on her face. "I was in tears and complete shock."
Just after her divorce was finalized, she found out that Jordan was being laid off, and her visits would soon stop.
"It was a big, huge thing in my life—that I was ending (my relationship) with my husband—that we had been working on, and it was the part where now, we were going to work on me," Evans said. "Losing Jessica (was) a very hard part for me. Jessica was such an important person in my life this whole last year."
In addition to Jordan getting laid off in February, Clifford left her position—which was being cut—to go back to school.
Evans and her children had their final Healthy Families visit in March.
Healthy Families is just one DES program whose budget is being cut to make up for shortfalls.
The state budget for the current fiscal year was revised in January to make up for a $1.6 billion shortfall in revenue. As a result, the DES had its budget reduced by nearly $103 million—a figured compounded by the fact that the agency was already wrestling with a $50 million dollar gap due to a growing demand for services. This $153 million shortfall has to be addressed by the end of the fiscal year.
The numerous other services that have been reduced include programs for children, aging adults, foster-care families, domestic-violence survivors and the homeless.
Some of the programs that were slashed are preventative services. Schindler argues that it doesn't make financial sense to cut these programs in the long term—leaving aside the emotional damage that may result if these children fall through the cracks.
"Are there going to be some reductions in services in this type of an economy? Yes," Schindler said. "But when you take a family-preservation program that costs roughly $300 a month, and then you increase the number of kids that are going to be in foster care at $3,000 a month, I don't even know that it makes economic sense."
Jacks agreed that cutting preventative services may result in more costly services being needed later in life.
"These are kids where if you give them services when they are small, you can generally keep them out of special ed; you can keep them out of all kinds of trouble," Jacks said. "There's nothing mysterious about this: If you help people early, things don't get worse."
While agencies are struggling to make the cuts needed this fiscal year, they are looking at the possibility of even deeper cuts in the fiscal year 2010. The Arizona DES was asked by the Governor's Office of Strategic Planning and Budgeting to prepare a draft budget that would factor in cuts of 5, 10, 15 and 20 percent.
The prospects are bleak.
"In the current climate, basically everything we've managed to do over 18 years is about to be rolled back in the space of about 4 months," Jacks said. "Honestly, there really has been progress for children, and honestly, it will go back to probably worse than it was 18 years ago."
Though she lost the help of Jordan and Clifford, Evans is happy that she was able to finalize her divorce and reach a place of strength before losing them. She worries about other women who may not have reached that point yet, and who may return to unhealthy relationships.
"Six months ago, I would've gone back (to my husband)," Evans said. "(For) the other women or other people ... when that (support) is ripped away from you, you're going to go back to what you know, what you're comfortable with, and unfortunately, sometimes you're comfortable with abuse."
Evans is now most concerned about making sure the cycle of abuse will stop with her children. Her oldest two daughters, Cicely and Epiphany, were most affected by the violence. Cicely reminds Evans of herself, she said: Cicely always takes the blame for things and seeks to please everybody. Meanwhile, Epiphany is aggressive. They still need therapy to learn self-esteem and healthy communication, Evans said.
Amir, Evans is proud to say, is approaching his second birthday without violence in his life.
Evans has been working with Emerge!, a domestic-violence center in Tucson, to replace the therapy that she was getting through Healthy Families, but she still does not have a therapist.
"I don't even know what to do or where to go, because I know so many services are being cut," Evans said. "I hope to find a really good therapist for them to work on their self-esteem and help them make healthy choices."