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A well-regarded Howard County nonprofit that is helping 88 clients deal with sexual assault and abuse has announced it will close Dec. 31 because of financial problems made worse by the recession.

Lisa Bailey, board chairwoman of the Sexual Trauma Treatment, Advocacy and Recovery Center (or STTAR) for the past two years, said the 32-year-old organization's attempts to expand just as the recession was reaching its peak stretched finances too far. An office in Anne Arundel County closed this fall, she said, and offices in Montgomery County and Columbia will close by year's end. All the patients are being referred to private practitioners, including to some of the group's 15 employees who operate private practices.

"I am disappointed," but there was no way to continue operating, she said.

"We wanted to expand services in the critical area of psychological trauma," Bailey said, "but we were unable to sustain our operations in this tight economy."

The decision came as a surprise to county officials.

"We were definitely surprised," said Susan Rosenbaum, the county's director of Citizen Services, who administers $233,000 in county grant funds for the group this fiscal year, part of the STTAR Center's roughly $1 million annual budget. The county has paid only half the grant money so far, she said. Most of the agency's funds come from clients' insurance, and private donations.

Rosenbaum said she first heard of problems Nov. 20, but said a 2008 audit and a first-quarter 2009 financial review showed nothing out of the ordinary. "Our main concern is dealing with the clients," she said.

The long-established group has offices on Patuxent Woods Drive off Broken Land Parkway. Executive director L. Jeannie Dillingham, who held the post for six years, "left the agency last month," Bailey said, declining to discuss the departure further. Rosenbaum, Horizon Foundation CEO Richard M. Krieg and STTAR board members are working to help see what may be salvageable, they said.

Krieg convened a meeting of interested parties last week, he said.

"Their staff is first-class. It's a complex situation."

Jodi Finkelstein, director of the Domestic Violence Center, said the situation is distressing.

"The STTAR Center was the only group in Howard County that provides services to the victims of sexual assault," she said. "It's very troubling," she said.

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