The victim of a teenage sexual predator has waived her right to anonymity to urge other victims to come forward and report their abusers.
Belinda Nolan was only eight years old when her older cousin Richard Phillip Watkins, then aged 17, began to sexually abuse her.
Her ordeal lasted a number of years and it was only at the age of 15 that she eventually broke down and told a friend what had been going on.
It was then she found the courage to tell her family, who perusaded her to go to the police.
Despite her best efforts to block out the sexual abuse, Belinda remembers three times which are still vivid to her, including how Watkins on one occasion had gone into her own bedroom while staying over and sexually assaulted her.
Now aged 19, Belinda, from South Shields, said: “People keep asking me why I finally opened up and told someone and I just don’t know.
“I just knew I had to do it right at that moment otherwise I may not have done it all.”Belinda Nolan
“As we got older, he got married and had a job and he was living a normal life, whereas my life, it was like I couldn’t really move on. It was really hard to open up to someone.
“It was midnight when I went to the police station to speak to someone. I remember I wasn’t sleeping, I hadn’t been for a while and I suffered from anxiety.
“It was like I had tunnel vision, I was just focused and went in. I just knew I had to do it right at that moment otherwise I may not have done it at all.
“I spoke to someone, and the more I started talking, the more I could feel myself telling them what had happened, how I was feeling.
“It was so scary as I didn’t know what to expect. When you go inside the interview room, they had to take lots of information but they were so kind.
“I did feel awkward talking to them about everything as it’s not a nice thing to talk about.”
Following her first interview with officers, Belinda was put in contact with Detective Constable Michelle Gregory, a specialist officer for Northumbria Police’s safeguarding department.
She added: “I remember the first time it happened, I was only eight years old. I remember because it was around the time my step-dad had died. My mam was working a lot so my brothers and he used to babysit me - that’s when he started to abuse me.
“I didn’t really know what was happening, I didn’t understand that what he was doing was abusing me.
“It wasn’t until I was about 13 when I started to realise what was happening to me and that what he was doing wasn’t right.”
Watkins, 29, of Winskell Road, in South Shields, who had orginally denied the charges when he appeared at Newcastle Crown Court, was found guilty of seven counts of sexual assault - three of assaulting a child under 13 by penetration, three of causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity and one of sexual assault of a child - by a jury in May this year. He was sentenced to six years.
Belinda added: “I just tried to block it all out of my mind. One of the times was at a family member’s house. He had shouted me over, but no-one was in.
“Throughout school I didn’t have a lot of confidence, I just kept myself to myself. I hadn’t really seen him since he abused me. He just kind of disappeared.”
Belinda says despite the case splitting her family apart, her close family stood by her and helped to give her the strength and support she needed to face her attacker in the court room.
She recalled: “I had seen him once at a family wedding in 2012, I didn’t feel right so I left early. The next time I saw him was in the court room.
“Michelle said I could have screens up if I wanted but I wanted to face him. I just concentrated on a friendly face in the jury and just stayed focused - I told them everything that had happened.
“It was nerve-wracking waiting for the verdict as we had to wait overnight but they came back the next day with a guilty verdict. You can’t even describe how that felt, all the stress, it just felt I could eventually start putting things behind me.
“I honestly didn’t think I would have been believed, there’s still people who don’t believe me now - but I was eight years old, he was 17.
“The hardest part was the trial and before it started I did think I can’t do this anymore, but Michelle really helped me through it.
“Seeing him jailed, it definitely has given me closure and justice and I can start getting on with my life.
“If something happens it can either make your life or break it. I know I am a lot stronger person today than I was before thanks to the help of the police and seeing justice being done. Knowing this wasn’t my fault and that he did groom me.
“The judge, when he sentenced him, read out something and what he said in a few minutes summed up my whole life and the way I had been living it because of what had happened to me.
“I don’t think he realised just what he has done and how this has all affected me - he destroyed everything. Not just my life but my mam’s life too.
“He still doesn’t believe he has done anything wrong.”
Belinda, is now a mum to a one-year-old little boy and she says she is focusing on the future to make it the best she can for her son and hopes to one day gain a good job to give her family the life they deserve.
“I’m a lot more protective of my son and I am always wary of people with him,
“I am now able to trust people, it did take me a long time. I did tell my partner but the stress of everything eventually broke us up. When it all come out it did put a big strain on the relationship.
“I can’t praise the police enough for what they have done for me and the way they have supported me and I would encourage anyone who has been abused to go 100 per cent to the police - they will support you and they will fight your corner with you.”
DC Gregory said: “When I first met Belinda she was very emotional, but over time it did get easier for her. It took around two years by the time the investigation was completed and the sentence was passed.
“Throughout she has been really brave and courageous.
“We know coming forward is so difficult which is why we are here to support victims throughout the whole process. There are also a number of agencies who can also offer support too.”