Nova Scotia mother of trafficked teen recalls 'every parent's worst nightmare'

The girl at the centre of the crime was 16 when she started living with Renee Webber, a 43-year-old Halifax woman who was convicted of sexual exploitation this week.

Mother received anonymous text of estranged daughter's photo on a prostitution website

Police say they try to establish a relationship with teenagers who are being exploited for sex so that they are more willing to come forward and co-operate. (CBC)

A Nova Scotia woman whose daughter was trafficked for sex has a message for any parent whose child has fallen into the same trap: never give up on your children.

The girl at the centre of the crime was 16 when she started living what her mother calls "every parent's worst nightmare."

"She was your typical high school teen," said her mother, whom CBC News is not naming because her daughter's identity is protected by a publication ban.

"She stayed at a friend's house. And then you turn around and she started hanging out with other friends that your parents aren't really approving of."

'Cool' friend drove a wedge

In this case, that other friend was Renee Webber, who was 40 in 2015 and lived in a Halifax suburb with her own three sons.

The young girl was charmed by Webber at first, telling her mother how "cool" she was. 

As a rift between the mother and her daughter grew stronger, the teen would spend more and more time with her friends at Webber's home. She eventually moved in.

Renee Allison Webber, 43, has been convicted of trafficking a person under the age of 18, receiving material benefits from trafficking a person under 18, sexual exploitation and advertising sexual services. (CBC)

"I'd want her home and I'd tell her to come home and there would be days when she would come back and all she would do is sleep," her mother recalled.

Discovered pills

When she discovered pills on her daughter one day, "motherly instinct" told her the teen was getting into some kind of trouble, she said.

Eventually her daughter stopped coming home at all. So her mother started to knock on doors, pleading with neighbours to keep an eye out for her daughter.

Then, out of the blue, someone sent her a mysterious, anonymous text message — a photo of her barely recognizable daughter on the prostitution website Backpages.

"I tracked her down," her mother said. "We found out where she was and we immediately went to the police with that information. I went straight to the police station and I asked them, 'Help me find my daughter and bring her home.'"

Why police couldn't do more initially

But she quickly learned it's not that easy.   

"We really need that individual who is being exploited to come forward," said Sgt. Kathryn Willet of the Halifax Regional Police.

Willet was the supervising sergeant on duty when the teen's mother first showed up with the photograph at the police station.

She said police try to establish relationships with teenagers who are being trafficked, something she called "soft intervention."

"We try to see what it is they need in order to try and meet those needs and get them to come on board so that we can lay charges."

For parents, that's usually a waiting game.

Overdose leads to a reconnection

By November 2015, the mother said she had lost all contact with her daughter. Then, out of nowhere, she received a call from Webber.

Webber and her boyfriend had taken the girl to Toronto for prostitution, the mother said.

Webber was calling the girl's mother to tell her the teenager had overdosed and was in hospital —  a frightening event that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Her mother immediately flew to Toronto where she found her daughter "drugged out."

"We had to stay overnight and wait to see if she needed surgery," she said.

But the girl didn't require surgery. Soon, her road to recovery was underway.

Road to recovery

Her mother took her daughter back to Nova Scotia and booked a vacation for them both "somewhere south."

She discovered that what happened to the girl is typical of what occurs in sex trafficking.

She was branded with a tattoo — in this case, an initial.

She was beaten.

And she was introduced to other pimps, one of whom the mother said wanted nothing to do with the 16-year-old girl because she looked so young.

Her mother said as the two of them bonded, her daughter would share stories of what happened to her while she was in Halifax, Moncton and Toronto working as an underage prostitute.

Confrontation led to trafficking charges

It wasn't until late May 2016 the young girl was ready to go to the police.

The mother alleged her daughter was walking to McDonald's one morning when Webber and co-accused Kyle Pellow pulled over in their car, confronted her and slapped her.

"And that's when the shift happened," her mother said.

Police arrested Webber at 9:20 p.m. on May 24 while she was at home with two of her sons, then 10 and 15.

Moving on

She and Pellow were both charged with trafficking a person under the age of 18, receiving material benefits from that trafficking, advertising sexual services and sexual exploitation.

Pellow pleaded guilty in June and was sentenced to six years in prison — later reduced to three years with time served.

Webber was found guilty in September of the charges and will be sentenced Jan. 7

The mother said her daughter is now enrolled in school and has a job.

"She's just like most other 19-year-old girls," she said.

About the Author

Preston Mulligan

Reporter

Preston Mulligan has been a reporter in the Maritimes for more than 20 years. Along with his reporting gig, he also hosts CBC Radio's Sunday phone-in show, Maritime Connection.