Angela Aufdemberge has helmed Vista Maria since 2011. The venerable Dearborn Heights institution was founded in 1883 by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, and provides supportive services to vulnerable youth. It began a new chapter in 2014 with the inception of its Wings program, which provides comprehensive services to young female trafficking victims. The program is housed in a dedicated building on the Vista Maria campus with capacity for 16 girls as young as 11, most of whom are referred by Michigan’s county courts and the state Department of Health and Human Services. In 2016, Wings served 60 girls.
Hour Detroit: How does Vista Maria define human trafficking?
Angela Aufdemberge: For a child under the age of 18, human trafficking is any forced labor act without financial gain, or commercial sexual exploitation — the selling of pornography or sexual acts for … some kind of gain. It can be a trade of drugs or cash or … for housing, food, or protection. Someone under 18 cannot consent to that … you don’t have to prove force, fraud, or coercion, because [legally] you can’t consent.
Is that federal or state law?
Both. In Michigan, [the cut-off age] used to be 16. … [We] lobbied very hard for 21, but at least got it moved from 16 to 18.
How did the Wings program get started?
The laws didn’t change in Michigan until 2014. So for the 10 years prior, [trafficking] was just viewed as severe and complex sexual trauma, period. And typically the traffickers were gangs, or they might be extended family members. It’s what I would call a very loose network. With the proliferation of computer-based solicitation, now the growth is exponential. What’s good is that now law enforcement can monitor and track it, so we have many more successful rescues. In the past, we would have relied on a neighbor or someone in the community to figure it out. It was all word of mouth and hard to track.
We’re constantly evaluating whether our services and programs are what I call an A game. In 2011, I was in a conversation with some of the leaders in the city of Detroit in health and human services and I asked, “What is Vista Maria not doing that you wish we would do?” One said: “We’re turning our children back to the people who are trafficking them [because they’re family].” … I started to understand this was much more complex. I sent team members to look at … what other programs were like out of state. We spent over a year researching, interviewing, and evaluating … and building a new treatment design protocol [for trafficking victims]
“Human trafficking is any forced labor act … or commercial sexual exploitation for … some kind of gain … And it’s a national epidemic.”
— Angela Aufdemberge
Do Michigan State Police often refer girls to you?
Our law enforcement is excellent at the recognition of victims and prosecution of traffickers. When they would do their raids, before the legislation changed, the kids would be brought to shelters. [Victims] were taught that you walk in the front door, you’re supposed to walk out the back door; traffickers trained kids in what to do and what not to say and if you violated that, your life would be in danger. Now we’re on the front lines when the police do these raids [and Vista Maria] is ready to do an emergency intake.
Why is there more public awareness?
I think the media is driving that. And it’s a national epidemic. Our kids, they never walked the streets. That’s not how the transaction is made any more, especially when they’re minors. They call it hidden in plain sight. The transaction is over the Internet, via an app or a text. That young person is at a hotel room or a room in a party or picked up in a taxi and taken to a location.
It’s subtle and it’s grooming; it’s a friend or a family member. They never see it coming. “I had this really friendly uncle, he bought me gifts. No one in the family suspected ….” Especially the ones who started so young — it’s before their sexuality is formed. Traffickers teach them … “If you love me, you’ll do it for other people.” The grooming is subtle. What we also find [with] kids from more affluent families, if it’s not family … it’s the Romeo pimp [one who controls through psychological manipulation].
What policies would you change?
The first would be to change the laws so that anyone under the age of 21 and anyone who could trace trafficking victimization to under the age of 21, had immediate expunction of any criminal accusation and was remanded into treatment, paid for by the state. No. 2 would be that there would be funding in our state budget for [quality care]. It’s criminal to have a victim say, “The best thing that happened [was being] incarcerated because then I could break the cycle.”
What’s the biggest public misconception about trafficking?
That it’s someone else’s children. And that individuals who are purchasing the sex acts are somebody else. Unfortunately, they are also hidden in plain sight.
Name: Angela Aufdemberge
Education: Master of Arts in industrial relations and Bachelor of Science in business administration, Wayne State University; Senior Professional Human Resources Certification by the Society of Human Resources Management
Favorite Book: Wooden on Leadership by UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. “I was able to meet [him] to discuss how to develop talent and build winning teams.”
Nonprofit Leader She Admires the Most: Sister Paulette LoMonaco, executive director of Good Shepherd Services. “She is a gracious yet relentless leader who advocates for abused and neglected children in New York City. She runs an $80 million charity, and doesn’t take ‘no’ as an answer.”
Boards and Memberships: Starr Vista, Transition to Independence, Michigan Federation of Children and Families, Michigan Child Welfare Partnership Council, Michigan Human Trafficking Commission