WHEN Sarah O’Connor went to the police in 2015 to report her stepfather for historic sexual assault she was amazed that she was believed.

Now that Keith Whitaker has been convicted and sentenced to two years in prison she feels that she has her sanity back.

The 29-year-old who now lives in Romsey is ready to begin the next chapter in her life. And she wants to encourage other victims to come forward and report their attackers.

Whitaker was always in Sarah’s life. He had been friends with her mother when they were teenagers and moved into the family home with Sarah, her two sisters, brother and mother, in Milbrook when Sarah was around 10.

She had always liked him and thought he was the perfect stepfather.

“He used to takes us to nice places, cuddle us and play games with us,” she remembers.

“He played football every Monday and I loved going to watch him. Once a week he played skittles with a group of friends and I used to like going along there too.

“He was the sort of dad whose hand you weren’t ashamed to hold in public.

“I remember it was a big build up to us calling him Dad and him kind of earning that title. I really loved him.”

Sarah says she craved affection. She used to send daily texts to her mother and Whitaker, telling them that she loved them and remembers regularly cleaning the house after school to earn their praise. Looking back, she describes herself as a bit clingy for her age.

When he first attacked her she says her reaction was pure shock.

“He sort of made it a joke then my mum came back in the room and it was all normal again,” she says.

But it was not an isolated incident.

Sarah felt confused and didn’t know what to do.

“I used to think that my mum was so happy with him and that she’d be devastated if she knew, so it would be better if I wasn’t there, so I drank a lot to cope with it and tried to kill myself more than once.

Eventually Sarah moved into a safe house, when she was around 17 years old.

“I was a heavy drinker,” she says.

“I was drunk on my first day of college. I was known as the drunk one among my friends, but no one knew why. They just knew that I was unhappy.

“I used to self harm a lot – cutting and burning myself. Sometimes it was to hurt myself and sometimes it was more serious.”

Sarah says she felt pressured to move back into the family home with Whitaker.

“We looked like the perfect family unit, but it was rubbish,” she says.

“He even took me to my counselling sessions about him – it was a crazy set up. I used to say I felt like I was living in the twilight zone.”

But three years ago, everything began to change for Sarah, a student nurse, when she met her partner, Henry Atkinson.

“We fell out a lot in the beginning, because I didn’t understand why he was being so nice to me,” she says.

Sarah says she would have reported Whitaker to the police eventually, but was worried about the impact it would have on her family. But Henry helped her realise that it was something she had to do.

“He’s the first person who said I had to live my life for me. I kept saying that it was going to upset everyone if I came forward and he said that wasn’t my fault.”

Reporting the crime was a turning point for Sarah.

“I reported it in August 2015. Telling someone and having them believe me was amazing,” says Sarah, who is full of praise for how the police supported her and handled the case.

“I didn’t think they were going to take me seriously. Whitaker is such a charming guy, I thought he’d be able to talk his way out of it.

“Throughout the whole thing, I’ve been in shock each time it’s been taken seriously – when they brought the charges, when he was taken to court, when they came back with the guilty verdict.

“I feel like I’ve been given my sanity back. I don’t feel like I’m living on another planet anymore.

“It was very important for me to get the guilty verdict,” she adds.

“It makes me feel other people are safer. It’s that whole ‘good guy’ mask has been ripped off. I want people to know what he is.”

Sarah would encourage anyone else in a similar position to her to come forward and report their attacker.

“As much as the justice system isn’t perfect, you have to have a degree of faith in it.

“My word against his was strong and true.

“I felt like I was going crazy before. I was very good at pretending I was OK when I wasn’t. I’m not as good anymore. I cry a lot but I think that’s healthy.

“Holding it in teaches you to live with it, when you shouldn’t.”

Sarah, who will soon qualify as a nurse and is set to start work in September, says she feels she has a bright future.

“Life has been very confusing,” she says.

“It kind of feels like it’s only just starting, like it was all a lie before.”

Sarah’s mother is still married to Whitaker and Sarah feels isolated from her family. But she has no regrets about coming forward.

“It sounds cheesy, but I feel a bit invincible now.”

Sarah says that it is important for her to waive her anonymity and share her story in order to help others.

“I used to read so many stories about people wo had come forward and wonder if I would be able to do that. I want someone to read my story and realise that they can come forward too.

“I also think people around him are safer now. He’s not that loving stepfather who everyone thought he was. The person who can hurt you is the person you trust the most, and now he’s been exposed.

“I want people to know that the bad person can be someone you know. It can be anyone.”

l Keith Whitaker denied three charges of adult sexual activity with a girl 13 to 17 family member but was convicted at Southampton Crown Court on July 10, 2017’ and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and required to register under section 92 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 for a period of 10 years.