Shelter Skelter

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, The Open Door Shelter must be a rest stop along the way.

It's supposed to be a place where battered women and their children can find safe haven. Instead, the Phoenix shelter, which raked in $417,000 in donations in 1994, has become the locus of vicious power grabs executed with the intensity of a hostile takeover and the maturity of a food fight.

The Open Door's founder and original director, Lola Laswell-Daniels, was forced out in January. She also was president of the board and had the dubious habit of writing herself shelter checks to repay loans--loans that never were documented. The shelter routinely paid Laswell-Daniels' personal credit-card bills. She holds title to a truck that the shelter bought, and drives a car that the shelter helped pay for.

Laswell-Daniels and her husband have retired to Payson, to a house on--no kidding--Easy Street. Now she sells real estate. But she wouldn't mind being president of The Open Door again.

She was succeeded as executive director first by Gina McQueen and then by Samantha Blair. Both resigned within weeks.

The next director, Audrey Rounding, also doubled as board president. Rounding, an interior designer from Paradise Valley, exhausted her 15 minutes of fame in the Eighties when she remodeled the McCune Mansion. She'd never worked at a domestic violence shelter.

Rounding had the dubious habit of taking things that belonged at the shelter home with her--specifically, goods from the thrift store and, in one case, the child of a shelter resident. Rounding adored the children. But she didn't think much of the battered women themselves; she calls them "scum."

In the first weeks of her nine-month tenure, Rounding decided The Open Door needed a new shelter, so she dipped into the shelter's savings and put a down payment on a $250,000 apartment complex. Later, she sold the shelter's former building to one of her employees for $80,000, which is $15,000 less than The Open Door had paid for it in 1987.

Marcia Cech-Soucy, a professional political consultant who was between campaigns, arrived on the scene in June to do some part-time accounting. Cech-Soucy says she discovered that Rounding was drawing a salary that hadn't been approved by the board. She confronted Rounding with allegations of embezzlement, and Rounding quit, although she denies the accusations.

Cech-Soucy became the new director and carted all of the shelter's records and its donor-heavy database home with her--for safekeeping and to prepare a complaint she intends to make to the attorney general.

By early October, 24 of the shelter's 27 employees had either quit or been fired.

So while The Open Door's current and former employees and directors are staging coups, filing lawsuits and lining up outside Grant Woods' office to rat on one another, who's taking care of the women?

Sheryl Burdick, one of the remaining three employees of The Open Door, laughs out loud. "The women? The women take care of the women. That's about it," she says.

For the most part, repeated attempts to find and interview women who have stayed at The Open Door over the years were unsuccessful.

People who monitor nonprofit organizations say the free-for-all at The Open Door Shelter is not that uncommon. Things like this tend to happen when there are lots of money, lots of people with time on their hands and very little oversight.

As Arlene Portada, a former counselor at The Open Door, explains: "A shelter is the perfect place for someone with a power trip to go wild. . . . People who don't have training but who have a kind of an agenda--whether it's about helping people or it's about feeling like the king--it's just a place that people can run riot with their egos."

Lola Laswell-Daniels is a stout 65-year-old with a cap of silver curls and cowboy boots, which she wears with jeans and a big metal belt buckle bearing an "L."

Like many of the women who consider themselves qualified to work with domestic violence victims, Laswell-Daniels had no formal training in social work when she decided to open a shelter. But she was once a victim herself.

"I know what it's like. I've been there. You can't tell me anything about it. That's why I wanted to do what was right."
She founded The Open Door Shelter in March 1986--under the name Brighter Tomorrows--with her sister and a woman named Marianna Ramsay.

As envisioned, the shelter would offer transitional housing to women who had spent a month in a crisis shelter, but still needed time to put their lives in order. No such service existed in Phoenix at the time.

Ramsay and Laswell-Daniels had met at Rainbow Retreat, another local domestic violence shelter. Ramsay was an administrative assistant; Laswell-Daniels did telemarketing.