A Woman's Place to close by June 30

A Woman's Place, a prominent Merced-based nonprofit and the county's primary provider of domestic violence shelter services, will close its doors for good and lay off all its staff by June 30, the agency announced Friday.

Its board of directors is placing blame for the agency's collapse on its longtime executive director, Diana Almanza. Board members said she is responsible for serious financial mismanagement at A Woman's Place, leaving them no choice but to fold.

Almanza left the agency in October after she was arrested twice in one week on suspicion of hit-and-run drunken driving.

Already, A Woman's Place has drastically scaled back its operations, and it will continue to draw down over the next three months, board President Bob Rucker said.

Most of the agency's 38 employees have left, either voluntarily or through layoffs over the past several months. Seven were laid off Thursday.

In the meantime, the agency's Merced shelter will stay open and will continue to provide counseling and court advocacy.

Three weeks ago, the board closed its Los Banos shelter. Effective Monday, it no longer will take donations to its warehouse that supplied clothing and household items to women starting over after an abusive relationship.

The board of directors hopes for a smooth transition to an agency interested in taking over A Woman's Place's work, though no replacement has been identified, Rucker said.

The board previously acknowledged the financial mismanagement, but said as recently as a month ago that the agency, which draws most of its funding from government grants, would persevere and stay open.

Last week, the board voted unanimously to shut down, Rucker said Friday.

"There's been new surprises as to the extent of this every day," he said. "It's reached a point where we just can't keep it going."

The board ordered a financial audit soon after Almanza's departure. Its results, released in February, revealed major shortcomings in the agency's accounting practices, as well as struggles to make ends meet.

Specifically, it found that the agency had failed to collect all its grant money, overdrawn its bank accounts numerous times, poorly controlled its cash, overestimated its income by at least a half-million dollars and lacked a competent bookkeeper.

Almanza had maxed out a $90,000 line of credit that the board didn't know existed, board members said. And as of last fall, A Woman's Place hadn't completed and submitted to its funders an annual audit for the 2005-2006 fiscal year. Almanza had told the board the audit was done, Rucker said.

Almanza declined to comment for this story, but her attorney, John Garcia, disputed that she is to blame for the agency's collapse. He said she never misled the board about its financial problems.

"They knew what was going on. They knew they needed to make cutbacks," he said. "That was no secret. They were working to reorganize before (Almanza) left."