Sally, a human trafficking victim, had a place she called home in Washtenaw County, but it really wasn’t.
There were no hot dinners, homework help or happy family times. Her mom was too busy catering to a boyfriend to spend time with her daughter.
Soon, Sally found a new family. She’d run away every time police officers brought her back home.
She was raped, introduced to drugs and cycled in and out of shelters and hospitals for overdose and psychiatric treatment because she was suicidal, beginning at the age of 12.
Sally — whose name was changed to protect her identity — felt more at home on the streets. She always made her way back to her “boyfriend,” who provided her with both a fix and a sense of family.
The last time she left home, she was 14 years old. She overdosed, and after her mother refused to pick her up from the hospital, she wound up at Vista Maria, which provides residential treatment and schooling for girls in need from its Dearborn campus.
It took time, but Sally gradually opened up about what happened to her.
Her boyfriend would say things like, “If you loved me, you’ll do this for me,” said Meredith Reese, chief of integrated behavioral health at Vista Maria.
Or he’d tell her that to get more drugs, she needed to provide sexual favors, Reese said.
“He knew he had her.” In May, Vista Maria will open Michigan’s first “secure” treatment site for young, female victims of human trafficking to ensure “boys” like him can’t get to girls like Sally to pull them back into a life of trafficking.
The new, 14,000-square-foot center represents a new treatment model for human trafficking victims, combining emergency health and mental health at a trauma-focused center so victims don’t have to jump between hospitals, police stations and residential treatment sites. It doubles the number of dedicated beds Vista Maria has for victims of human trafficking, building on an open center unveiled on its campus five years ago for girls who are stable enough to come and go from the campus for school, jobs or outings.
Vista Maria has hired 26 new employees to provide treatment at the new facility.
Vista Maria, which is operating on a $25 million annual budget, has raised about two-thirds of the $4.9 million cost of the new Aaron and Helen L. DeRoy Freedom Center. Lead gifts in the campaign include $750,000 from the DeRoy Testamentary Foundation, $500,000 each from the Carls Foundation and McGregor Fund and a 15-year, forgivable loan from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Indianapolis.
“This new building enables us to take young people right from a raid situation … and stabilize them physically and mentally,” at the same location, Vista Maria President and CEO Angela Aufdemberge said.
“It’s a physical intervention — we’re pulling her out and putting her in new place to calm the effects of that trauma,” Aufdemberge said.
Developing that relationship is essential to breaking the cycle of a girl looking to return to her trafficker because of the hold he or she has on her, Aufdemberge said.
Physical security features at the new center, including locks, cameras and alarms, will also play a vital role in helping to reduce recidivism, law enforcement officials said.
Investigations confirm that over half of the girls who are exploited return to their trafficking “families,” said Mike Glennon, supervisory special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigations, which leads the Southeast Michigan Traffic and Exploitation Crimes multi-jurisdictional task force.
But based on social media postings and other investigation, recidivism is projected to be as high as 80 percent, he said.
“With a recidivism rate that is astronomically high … the vast majority just can’t get out of the life cycle they’re in. The only way to break the chains … is to put them in a secure facility and get them the help they need.”
Vista Maria’s new center, the only secure treatment site for young trafficking victims in the state, can provide residential treatment for 16 girls.
But with at least half of roughly 250 minor victims recovered last year expected to go back to their traffickers, that’s nowhere near enough, Glennon said.