'I'm hoping the judge says 10 years,' says mother of teenage human trafficking victim

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'I'm hoping the judge says 10 years,' says mother of teenage human trafficking victim

A 21-year-old man who threatened his victim with a gun gesture in a Halifax courtroom will be sentenced today for human trafficking.

Owen Gibson-Skeir is the first person to be convicted of human trafficking in Nova Scotia since new federal laws took effect in 2005.

"I'm hoping the judge says 10 years," said the victim's mother.

Gibson-Skeir pleaded guilty last December to trafficking in a person under the age of 18, receiving material benefit from trafficking, and sexual assault. His victim was 14 years old at the time of the offences.

The Crown and defence had prepared a joint recommendation of seven years. However, following the statement of facts, Gibson-Skeir threatened his victim as he was led out of court by sheriffs. Two more charges were added to his file: uttering threats and intimidation of a justice participant.

The victim's mother, who cannot be identified because of a publication ban, says Gibson-Skeir's stunt in court will only hurt himself in the long run.

"The plea deal ended up not being a deal at all really, and we were kind of happy about that," she said.

'Heartbreaking' details

The girl's mother says she didn't know the extent of what Gibson-Skeir did until she heard it in court.

"There were guns involved. There were beatings. I knew some of that. More of the sexual stuff is what I didn't know the details of," she said. "It was heartbreaking."

Gibson-Skeir pimped the young girl out at hotels across the city between January and March 2016. He posted ads online, and made his victim call him "Daddy."

Her mother says she had suspicions, but it wasn't until one night when her daughter started crying that she learned Gibson-Skeir had sent the girl text messages, threatening to hurt her family.

"He had sent two pictures with a handgun and his hand right on it with his tattoos," she said.

"I had asked my daughter if she wanted to charge him and she wasn't really sure. I think she was really scared."

'We were hiding'

Her mother says she decided to go forward with a case against Gibson-Skeir, with support from her family, even though it was the "hardest, biggest step ever."

"It's not just worrying about charging them. Then there's threats. There's death threats," said the girl's mother.

"We had to have our windows closed, doors locked. We were hiding. It was crazy. It was scary."

However, she says the family would "absolutely" do it all over again.

First conviction

She says several investigators told the family a conviction was unlikely because it had never been done. Now that Gibson-Skeir will be sentenced for human trafficking, the victim's mother hopes it will pave the way for more cases.

"Other girls can now come forward and know that the police can no longer start the conversation off with 'we've never had a conviction.' So that's something to be proud of, I guess," she said.

Crown attorney Catherine Cogswell agrees it has created a path for more convictions.

"This is the sexual slavery of children and we're going to fight this tooth and nail in the community and in the courts and I think that's the significance of the first conviction for the human trafficking provisions," she said.

As of January 2017, the Human Trafficking National Co-ordination Centre identified 115 cases of human trafficking  or related charges in Canada that resulted in convictions.

Difficult to prove

Cogswell explains that human trafficking is a difficult offence to prove, and often relies on a victim to come forward. Although new legislation tabled by the Liberal government is meant to reduce the likelihood that victims of trafficking would have to testify in court, Cogswell says she can't see it happening any other way.

"Any suggestion that it will reduce the instances of victims sitting in the box and giving old-fashioned testimony, I think that's naive. And I applaud their efforts, but as a prosecutor from the trenches, you have to have the witness in the box to talk about it," she said.

Nicole Barrett, director of the International Justice and Human Rights Clinic in Vancouver, believes there are other ways to successfully prosecute a human trafficking case.

"I think part of the problem with the low number of cases is that you have many people that are not good victim witnesses and then the cases are dropped," she said.

Barrett would like to see police focus on the money trail of suspected perpetrators, rather than push victims to risk their lives by speaking out.

"I mean it's a different kind of evidence. It's not as emotional," said Barrett. "But I don't think it wouldn't work to have the financial case, and it's better for many reasons."