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Young love or child trafficking? Critics seek to raise Missouri's marriage age.

Young love or child trafficking? Critics seek to raise Missouri's marriage age.

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The people who issue marriage licenses in Missouri generally have a happy job, but every once in a while they face a disturbing situation.

Like the pregnant 15-year-old who came with her mother to Jan Jones’ recorder of deeds office in Johnson County to apply for a marriage license. The future groom standing next to them was a man in his mid-20s.

Under state law, Jones, the former head of the Recorders Association of Missouri, was obligated to issue the license. Afterward, she got a call from the state Children’s Division, which had been investigating the pregnancy as a potential child protection case. The state caseworker said there wasn’t much they could do now that the mother consented to the license and the couple had married.

“I remain haunted by it,” Jones said.

On Tuesday, members of the Children and Families Committee of the Missouri House are expected to consider a bill that would raise the earliest age to marry to 17. Right now, Missouri has one of the loosest thresholds for marriage in the country. It is one of 27 states in the nation where technically there is no age limit. That’s because parents have tremendous power to sign off on — and, critics say, possibly force — marriages on their children.

Groups that lobby against child marriage say the state is a haven for forced child marriages, drawing parents and children from around the country. Platte County, home of Kansas City International Airport, has one of the highest rates of younger teens applying for marriage licenses in the state, Jones said.

In Missouri, minors can marry as young as age 15 if they have the consent of a parent. Without that consent, youths of any age also have the option of appealing to the local courts for an order to get the license, though Jones said few do.

The current version of the bill, proposed by Rep. Jean Evans, R-Manchester, limits the use of parental consent to 17-year-olds seeking a marriage license and does away with the possibility of judicial orders for younger children.

At age 18, emancipated adults are free to marry on their own in Missouri and all other states in the nation.

National attention

Evans, who is new to the Legislature, said human trafficking is one of her signature causes. She said forced marriages by parents amount to an overlooked type of trafficking and child exploitation.

It’s an issue that’s gained increasing national attention.

The group Unchained at Last estimates 248,000 minors — nearly all of them girls, some as young as 12 — were wed in the United States from 2000 to 2010.

It and other groups argue girls who marry so young typically can’t access services such as battered women shelters and may be legally prevented from filing an order of protection. Studies further suggest poor outcomes, including high rates of divorce, lack of education, child poverty, poor physical and mental health and vulnerability to physical or verbal abuse.

In Missouri, 7,342 teens under 18 were married from 2000 to 2014, according to an analysis by the Tahirih Justice Center, an abuse prevention group that cites Missouri as having one of the highest child marriage rates in the nation.

The center said about 85 percent of those married Missouri teens were girls. In 2007, 52 Missouri girls under 15 were married, according to the group’s research. In about a third of those marriages, the groom was over 21, with some in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Just 15 of the grooms were under the age of 18.

Advocacy groups such as the Tahirih Justice Center point out that when minors marry older adults they engage in relationships that would otherwise amount to statutory rape.

In Missouri, a person 21 or older can be charged with statutory rape for having sex with a child under the age of 17. That’s particularly problematic when a visibly pregnant 15-year-old girl shows up to apply for a marriage license with a significantly older groom, said Jones, who saw this firsthand in her office.

Recorders of Deeds are not mandated reporters of child abuse in Missouri, but Jones wonders whether they should be, given what they see.

Gaining support

Evans brought the issue to fellow lawmakers after extensive media coverage last year when a father brought his pregnant daughter, 14, from Idaho to get married in Kansas City. The groom was a 24-year-old man also from Idaho who was later convicted of raping the girl. Evans said the father had agreed to not to press charges if the man agreed to marry his daughter.

“I’m trying to make the case with people that parents aren’t always good parents, and they do traffic their children,” she said.

The bill was first heard in committee a week ago. Numerous groups and agencies testified on its behalf, including the state attorney general’s office, a lobbyist for the Recorders Association of Missouri, domestic violence prevention groups and Missouri Kids First, a child abuse prevention group.

All of them said protection of the child had to be put first, and raising the age of consent was the best way to stem forced marriage and possible child sex trafficking.

There were doubts lodged among members of the committee. Rep. Michael Moon, R-Ash Grove, for example didn’t want to discourage marriage as an option in teen pregnancy. Others wondered about infringing on religious beliefs.

In written testimony on the bill, a representative with the Tahirih Justice Center argued the age of consent for all marriages should be strictly set at 18 with no loopholes regarding judicial court orders or parental consent for younger ages.

Jeanne Smoot, senior counsel with the Center, said even 17-year-olds could be forced into marriages by their parents.

At 18, they are considered adults with full rights and access the courts and services they may need, she said.

The proposed bill is HB270.

Editor's note: Since this story ran, the Missouri legislature has entered a new session, and is now considering HB 1630, which would increase the minimum age to 17, among other requirements

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Nancy Cambria is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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