Dearborn Heights center to expand efforts to help sex trafficking victims

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
Vista Maria President Angela Aufdemberge announces plans to build a new building to aid 16 girls and an emergency wing to open in 2020. Jan. 11, 2019 at Vista Maria in Dearborn Heights.

Dearborn Heights — On National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, one of Michigan's care and treatment center for victims, Vista Maria, announced plans Friday to expand its services as cases increase in southeastern Michigan. 

The recourse facility in Dearborn Heights has raised $2.4 million of the $4.6 million needed to build the Aaron and Helen L. DeRoy Stabilization Treatment Center, which will provide residential treatment and housing for 16 girls and host an emergency intake wing for up to three female children. The facility is slated to open in 2020.

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery, and the most sought-after are adolescent girls, said Angela Aufdemberge, Vista Maria president. 

"To think, 156 years later, we're still fighting modern slavery," Aufdemberge said. "The campaign is called Restore because it's unique. We have created a state-of-the-art facility and treatment center where young victims of human trafficking will receive care from the moment they're rescued."

Vista Maria estimates 200,000 children are victims of sex trafficking nationally — 1,200 girls in southeast Michigan alone. In 2018, Vista Maria aided 60 girls younger than 16 years old. In 2017, it aided 50. 

Working with the FBI's Detroit division and Michigan State Police, Vista Maria has been able to increase and improve their efforts, Aufdemberge said. 

For the third year in a row, southeast Michigan Child Trafficking and Exploitation Crimes Task Force had the most impact in the nation, FBI agent Michael Glennon said. In 2018, 239 children were rescued, the FBI made 269 arrests and there are 121 ongoing federal cases related to sex trafficking in southeast Michigan. 

"Unfortunately, we're only putting a dent into what really is out there," Glennon said. "We have limited manpower and resources, which is why working together has improved this."

Glennon said many young girls return to sex trafficking after being rescued. 

"Once we get and rescue them, without some sort of intervention, there's an 83 percent chance they'll return," Glennon said. "Often times because it's the only thing, the only family structure and only one that has shown them attention and love."

Glennon said the method of trafficking has changed significantly in the last 15 years, from traditionally tracking the streets to tracking through online portals, such as Backpage and Craiglist.

Sex trafficking also has been an issue in Detroit, especially during the North American International Auto Show, which begins next week. Glennon said they see a 180-240 percent increase of sex trafficking in southeast Michigan during the annual auto show. 

"It works in a cycle. Children are brought in and out and are sourced locally. They don't stay in one area too long either," Glennon said.

With changes to the Online Human Trafficking Act, Glennon said the platforms that automatically alerted and aggregated postings of child listings are now scattered across an app-based platform, which is difficult to track.

"We've lost 63 percent visibility as far as where these people are at," he said. "It makes it significantly difficult, and there is no dominate website where these things are happening. Everything from dating apps to Instagram to OfferUp."

Vista Maria only cares for girls because it struggled in the past to find boys who would admit to being a victim. Michigan State Police and FBI both said male victims make up 5 percent of all cases. 

Vista Maria's Restore campaign for the building reached the halfway mark through two grants: $750,000 provided by the DeRoy Testamentary Foundation and $500,000 from the McGregor Fund. 

"The McGregor Fund board and staff is honored to support the facility that's first-of-its-kind to give a safe, secure centralized facility for victim care and restoration," said Kate Levin Markel, president of the McGregor Fund, which has provided more than $1 million to Vista Maria since 1950. 

The building, which began planning in 2017, was also funded by the Federal Home Loan Bank of Indianapolis, Carls Foundation, Northridge Chruch - Love Runs, Abhi Shah Foundation and SEED Foundation.
Twitter: @SarahRahal_