Delaware Gov. John Carney, pictured here in 2014, signed a bill on Wednesday that sets the minimum age of marriage at 18. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Delaware Becomes First State to Ban Child Marriage

May 9, 2018
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by Anjali Tsui Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

On Wednesday, Delaware Governor John Carney signed into law a bill setting the minimum marriage age at 18, making his state the first in the U.S. to ban child marriage.

The law takes effect immediately. Previously, a minor in that state could get married at any age with a judge’s approval.

With the new law, Delaware is now the only state where minors are unequivocally prevented from marrying before their 18th birthday. Forty-nine other states and the District of Columbia all allow minors to marry under certain circumstances, often with parental consent or a judge’s approval.

More than 207,000 people under 18 were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2014, according to a FRONTLINE analysis of marriage records. While most minors were 16 or 17 years old, some were as young as 12.

In Delaware, some 200 minors were married between 2000 and 2011, according to state health data. The majority — 90 percent — were girls.

“This is such a huge victory for women and girls,” said Fraidy Reiss, the founder of Unchained At Last, an organization that has been campaigning to end child marriage in the U.S. “In the age of the ‘Me Too’ movement, we’re finally getting our elected officials to recognize that girls have value.”

Delaware’s historic move comes as other states have begun to rethink laws that allow minors to marry. Advocates say that decades-old laws fail to protect vulnerable youths who might be pressured or even forced into unions.

Since 2016, more than 20 states have introduced legislation to raise the minimum marriage age. This year alone, in March, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a law that raised the marriage age to 17. In April, Tennessee passed a similar ban that is pending approval from the governor. In May, New Hampshire passed a bill to raise the marriage age from 13 for girls and 14 for boys to 16 for both genders.

The bill in Delaware won bipartisan support and passed unanimously in the Senate. However, it faced some opposition in the House of Representatives.

Rep. Steve Smyk, a Republican who voted against the bill, called the measure “well-intentioned, but shortsighted.” Smyk said the blanket ban on marriage before 18 might “unfairly exclude couples with legitimate reasons for seeking such a union.”

Delaware’s laws governing child marriage were last updated in 2007 to remove a so-called “pregnancy exception.” The law previously compelled court clerks to issue a marriage license if a minor was pregnant.

Ken Boulden, a clerk of the peace in Delaware, fought to change the law more than a decade ago after he was asked to approve a marriage between a pregnant 14-year-old girl and a 27-year-old man.

“What I was statutorily required to do was — since the mother was there to sign and give the permission — I was supposed to grant them a marriage license and perform the ceremony,” he said in an interview with the FRONTLINE Dispatch.*

Boulden, who says he has performed more than 15,000 marriages throughout his career, said he couldn’t bring himself to marry the couple. So, he asked them to return a few days later. By then, he had alerted the police, who were on hand to arrest the man for statutory rape.

“I’ve had people die in my office. I’ve had a birth take place here,” he said. “I’ve had people walk out in the middle of ceremonies because they got cold feet. But the one vision that will stay with me the rest of my life is the look on that little girl’s face when she … knew she was in safe hands.”

Reiss and other advocates say the historic legislative change in Delaware may help pave the way for more states to pursue an outright ban on child marriage.

New Jersey’s Assembly is due to consider a similar bill this month. The measure, which passed both chambers of the legislature last year, was halted by then-Gov. Chris Christie, who refused to sign the proposal into law.

In a memo to legislators, Christie, a Republican, said that a complete ban on child marriage would “violate the cultures and traditions of some communities in New Jersey based on religious traditions.”

Christie left office in January 2018. His successor, Phil Murphy — a Democrat — has indicated that he will support the bill.

*A previous version of this audiogram misspelled the name of Ken Boulden. 

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