Angela Aufdemberge, CEO and president of Vista Maria, provides essential programs and services for vulnerable youth and victims of human trafficking
By Carmen Nesbitt
Photography by Hayden Stinebaugh
Helping victims of human trafficking can be a dangerous job — but one that Angela Aufdemberge, 56, of Grosse Pointe, embraces. As CEO and president of Vista Maria, a Dearborn Heights-based services center for vulnerable youth and victims of human trafficking, Aufdemberge is leading a change in survivors’ lives and state policy.
Michigan State Police and FBI officials estimate there are 1,000 victims of human trafficking in Metro Detroit, Aufdemberge says. However, survivors have limited treatment options locally. In 2011, Aufdemberge realized this, so she developed a program for underage survivors of sex trafficking. Thanks to her initiative, Vista Maria became home to Southeast Michigan’s “only licensed and contracted agency to provide treatment for survivors of human trafficking,” she says.
On average, Vista Maria serves 22 girls and women each day who have suffered abuses that society “won’t take on,” Aufdemberge says. The reason is the complicated, “criminal dark side” of human trafficking, which can involve family members of the victims, hostile pimps, gang networks and girls who come to Vista Maria to “recruit” sex workers.
To address the complications of human trafficking, Vista Maria has an “integrated behavioral health approach.” Each girl has access to a team of nurses, a dedicated therapist and group counselor. “The treatment is all about first looking at her and figuring out what are the most critical basic health needs that need to be resolved, so she can work on her trauma and her mental health needs,” Aufdemberge says. Then, clinicians work with the girls to create a six- to nine-month treatment plan that includes therapy, life skills development and trigger management. Because trauma varies from girl to girl, so must treatment: A survivor who has been trafficked by her father has different needs than someone who was tricked by a “Romeo pimp,” Aufdemberge says.
Recently, Aufdemberge orchestrated a campaign to build an additional treatment building that will open in spring 2020. “We started to realize that there are children that the law enforcement rescues who are not at a place yet to be in an open program,” she says. “The second building not only increases our capacity from 16 to 32 treatment spaces, but it also allows us to be better prepared for young people who need mental health and physical health stabilization.”
Aufdemberge’s fundraising and program development talents have helped many young women, but it’s her mentorship that makes the biggest difference, says Vista Maria spokeswoman Colleen Robar. “When she has a chance to talk with the girls one-on-one is when she is at her best,” Robar says. “She has a great listening ear and helps these young survivors discover the right personal path to help them heal and move on.”
Aufdemberge plans to push for advocacy and changes in the law about criminal penalties and victim support. “I’m the zealot,” she says, “It’s not always a popular word, but I can tell you, I’ve got passion.”