Don't Let the Neighbours Find Out: How Do You Reform Sex Offenders? Can They Be Reformed at All? Shirl Marshall Thinks They Can and Her Methods Are Simple: Food and Hugs. Peter Stanford Reports

By Stanford, Peter | New Statesman (1996), June 21, 2004 | Go to article overview

Don't Let the Neighbours Find Out: How Do You Reform Sex Offenders? Can They Be Reformed at All? Shirl Marshall Thinks They Can and Her Methods Are Simple: Food and Hugs. Peter Stanford Reports


Stanford, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


If the neighbours in the adjoining bungalows were peering out from behind their net curtains on Saturday, they would have thought that Shirl, that nice but colourful woman at number 13, was having another family party. It was an everyday suburban scene in a pleasant patchwork of culs-de-sac in Middle England, the sort of event to send John Major into raptures about warm beer, cricket and old ladies on bikes. But appearances can be deceptive. Only two of 70-year-old Shirl Marshall's guests were actually related to her. The other half-dozen were among the most despised men in the country.

They are what Marshall calls her "Consequences family". Consequences is the charity she setup eight years ago to continue what has been half a lifetime of work with serious offenders, many of them convicted of sex crimes. Hundreds of prisoners have turned to her during that time as someone who believes that, despite the enormity of their offences, they can still be reformed. Some of her "boys"--as she refers to them--even come to stay in her home. It is unorthodox and some experts would say it is dangerous, but it appears to work. To her knowledge, only two of her boys have reoffended. "I go against the grain," she reflects, "and refuse to condemn these men as monsters. For me, they are human beings."

Tom and John were among those at the party. They were staying overnight in Marshall's annex, a converted garage. Tom raped his 14-years-old stepdaughter. John committed a similar crime against his daughter. Both have now served prison sentences and are on the sex offenders' register for life.

Most articles at this point would include a description of their subject and a few details to afford a sense of place. With Shirl Marshall, that is impossible. It would be giving the game away. There can be no photograph, in case anyone recognises her, and no hint of where she lives, for fear of inciting vigilantes like those who stalked our streets two summers ago searching for paedophiles.

The charity is not a one-woman band. There are others in the team doing administration and the finances, and Marshall is training two workers to follow in her footsteps. However, it remains very much her baby. Its work starts in prison. Referrals all come through word of mouth.

"I write first and make sure they know I'm unofficial, not linked to the probation service or anything like that," says Marshall. "And I send them a photograph of myself. I have to begin by showing them trust if they are ever to trust me.

"My first question is, 'What did you do?' My reputation is for being straightforward. They nearly always tell me. Then, over the course of our meetings, I will ask them about their memories of being a child--the first thing they remember, the first time they were hurt. That always gets you deeper.

"I don't have a set programme," Marshall says, "but I do always make sure that I touch them--on the arm or shoulder ... No one wants to touch a sex offender. I break down that barrier."

It is not a one-way process. "They will question me, too," she says. "Like: 'What the hell are you doing here?' And that is when I tell them about my experience." Marshall has experienced within her own family the devastation that sex offenders can cause. "It was the most painful period of my life," she recalls. Although she tells those she visits how it happened, she does not want to make the details public, in order to protect the others involved. She is, however, unabashed in describing its impact. "I got to a point where I decided that the pain could either eat away at me for ever, or I could grab it and use it positively. I'm a firm believer that it is not what happens to you: it's what you do with it. I couldn't give people what they need if I hadn't lived the life I've lived. I wouldn't have the resources to do it. I wouldn't know how they feel."

For a woman who clearly enjoys talking, a lot of her time with sex offenders is spent listening.

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