Married Young: The Fight Over Child Marriage in America


September 14, 2017

Heather decided she didn’t need a new pair of shoes for her wedding. The silver heels she wore to a friend’s prom at the beginning of summer would do. They would match the purple dress she picked out with her dad. Her blonde hair would be twisted and pinned back, held in place with a tiara.

On Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015, she packed her clothes and crammed into the back of a van next to her boyfriend, Aaron. Her dad, stepmom and grandmother filled the other seats alongside Aaron’s parents.

It was the morning of her 15th birthday, but she wasn’t in the mood to celebrate. Heather was in her first trimester. Her belly felt bloated and queasy. She often craved soggy nachos and hard-boiled eggs.

In some ways, she was looking forward to becoming a mom. Heather said she liked the idea of raising a child, of having a purpose she couldn’t easily abandon. But she was also scared.

The pregnancy meant trouble for Aaron. He was 24 years old. In Idaho, where they met, it’s a felony — statutory rape — for an adult to have sex with anyone younger than 16. The maximum punishment is life in prison.

Heather lived in a small town surrounded by wheat and potato fields in the valley below Yellowstone National Park. A few days before her birthday, her mother — who was divorced from her father — called the local police from her home in Utah and filed a report. An investigation was opened right away.

Heather said she didn’t want Aaron to go to jail. She loved him and needed him to be around for their baby. After the police started looking into the case, they sat down with their families and decided to get married. Heather’s father, Keith, thought marriage was what the Bible advised and they all hoped it would keep Aaron out of trouble.

Around the country, people need to be at least 18 to get married on their own. But courthouses in every state allow minors to marry under certain circumstances. The rules are slightly different in each place. In order to get married in Idaho at 15, Heather would need permission from a parent. She’d also need permission from a judge, but she worried about what that might mean.

“Going to the judge and asking them to let me marry a 24-year-old when I was 14 because I was pregnant. You know that’s, right there that’s like, you’re going to jail, friend.”

There was another problem: Heather’s mother, Lynette, would never agree to let her marry. They would have to keep their plans hidden from her.

Heather’s grandmother, Linda, went online to search for states with more lenient laws. They considered driving nine hours to Las Vegas, but Nevada would require a copy of Heather’s birth certificate, which she did not have on hand.

Missouri seemed like a good option. While some states ask for both parents’ permission, Missouri only required one signature from a custodial guardian or parent. Since Heather had just turned 15, a court clerk — rather than a judge — could approve the union.

Kansas City, on the western edge of Missouri, was 17 hours away. They left on Heather’s birthday and drove through the night, only stopping to get gas or when she needed to throw up. Heather’s family members occasionally turned around to ask: Heather, is this really what you want?

“By that time, I thought: We were already on our way,” Heather said. “This was already a thing. Everybody was already ready, so … let’s just do it.”

They arrived on Sunday. Early the next morning, they strolled through the marble lobby at the Jackson County Courthouse to the recorder of deeds’ office on the first floor.

A court clerk asked Heather and Aaron for their ages and a copy of their IDs. Heather’s dad, Keith, signed a box on the marriage license application form that read: “I … hereby give my consent to said marriage.”

The marriage license was approved by 8:40 a.m.

A copy of Heather and Aaron’s marriage license application from the Missouri Department of Health.
A copy of Heather and Aaron’s marriage license application from the Missouri Department of Health.

They returned to their hotel to get ready for the ceremony. Heather put on the purple dress with short sleeves and a sweetheart neckline. Aaron wore sneakers, dark slacks and a matching plaid tie. She posed for a photo with her dad and stepmom, resting her hands on her belly in the shape of a heart.

The family then drove to the Children’s Memorial Butterfly Garden, built to remember children who die before their parents. Keith walked Heather down a gravel path to a picnic table where Aaron stood waiting. Her grandmother captured the ceremony on video.

The officiant began by asking Aaron: “Are you here today of your own free will?”

“Yes,” he said.

Then, she turned to Heather: “And you?”

“Yes,” she said.

Heather felt nervous. She wouldn’t be getting married if it wasn’t for the pregnancy and the fact that Aaron was in trouble.

“I almost puked,” she recalled. “I don’t know if it was because I was nauseous and I was hot. Or, if it was because part of me knew that I could say something.”

Heather faced Aaron and held his hands. They recited vows, promising to love, cherish, protect and comfort each other. Aaron leaned in to kiss her and slid a ring on her outstretched hand. After the ceremony, they smeared cake on each other’s faces. She laughed as white icing landed over Aaron’s lip in the shape of a mustache.

It was a hot, summer day. Heather’s dress felt tight and her makeup was beginning to smudge. With their legal troubles seemingly behind them, they walked back to the parking lot and drove home.

A view of Heather’s family’s property in Idaho (Anjali Tsui/FRONTLINE)

A Patchwork of Laws

When Congress lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1971, the move was celebrated by young people around the country. The 26th Amendment culminated a decades-long fight that began during World War II — when President Franklin Roosevelt lowered the minimum draft age to 18 — and continued through the Vietnam War. Student activists organized around the rallying cry: “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote!”

Since then, 18 has become the official age of adulthood in every state except Mississippi, where it is 21, and Alabama and Nebraska, where it is 19. Today, turning 18 comes with a host of rights and responsibilities. In the vast majority of states, it’s the age when a person can sign a lease for an apartment, open a bank account, serve on a jury and enlist in the military without a parent’s permission.

And while 18 is also the legal age of marriage in most states, the laws in all 50 states allow minors to marry with parental consent. In some states, a judge must also approve the union. Nine states grant special permission for minors who are pregnant or have given birth to a child, according to a report by the Tahirih Justice Center, an organization that offers legal services for women and girls fleeing violence.

Between 2000 and 2015, these laws made it possible for more than 200,000 minors to marry legally, according to a FRONTLINE analysis of marriage records from 41 states and the largest counties in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. Data was unavailable for California, Georgia, Maine, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.

Almost 90 percent of minors who married were girls. Most of them were 16 or 17 years old. In rare instances, however, children as young as 12 years old were granted marriage licenses in Alaska, Louisiana and South Carolina.

Only a fraction of these marriages involved two minors. Most of the time, a minor’s spouse was 18, 19 or in his early 20s. Nearly 500 minors were permitted to marry partners in their 40s, 50s and even over 60.

Overall, the total number of minors who marry each year has dropped by more than half since 2000. The rates of child marriage, however, have remained highest in states with large rural and low-income populations, like Idaho, Kentucky and West Virginia.

In the last two years, advocates and lawmakers in a dozen states who are concerned about the continuing practice have attempted to rewrite the laws that allow minors to marry. These measures have provoked fierce debate over whether and when state governments ought to sanction marriages involving minors. The question at the center of these conversations: Are minors equipped to get married? If so, at what age?

State laws fail to offer a consistent answer. Some set a minimum age that a person must reach —15, 16 or 17, for instance —  before he or she can marry. However, in half of all states, there’s no minimum age that a person must reach as long as a parent — and sometimes, a judge — consents to the union.

In the states where judges are involved in approving a marriage, they are often generalists who do not specialize in family, juvenile or domestic relations law, according to the Tahirih Justice Center report. Often, the report said, they are “ill equipped” to identify concerns.

Advocates for reform say the current patchwork of laws fails to protect minors who might be pressured or coerced into marriage. They warn that these loopholes give parents outsized power to decide when and whom their children should marry.

“Are you sitting down?”

Heather was the quiet, middle child with light, blonde hair, freckles and a toothy smile. She loved to dance and watch “Dora the Explorer.” On Sundays, she attended a non-denominational Christian church.

Heather was 7 when her parents divorced. She and her two siblings moved with their mother, Lynette, to a suburb outside Salt Lake City.

She faced traumatic times during middle school, battling anxiety and depression. Eventually, she moved back to Idaho where she lived with her grandparents in their house above the family’s bright yellow fly fishing store.

Her dad, Keith, managed the store. Heather helped out occasionally and earned the nickname “worm girl” for her main responsibility — putting worms in cups and filling them with dirt. She graduated to operating the cash register when she was 12. By the time she was 14, she greeted customers, stocked inventory and helped her grandparents as they shuttled fishermen’s vans along the rivers nearby.

Inside the family's fly fishing equipment store.
Inside the family’s fly fishing equipment store. (Anjali Tsui/FRONTLINE)

Heather’s grandparents took on extra workers during the summer months. In 2015, they hired a husband and wife pair to help run the business.

The couple’s eldest son, Aaron, caught Heather’s attention. He was 24, and his sandy colored hair was starting to thin. Heather said she was too shy to say hello so she messaged him on Facebook.

“Most of our messages were kind of awkward,” she said. “He was obsessed with death metal and all of this stuff. And I’m like, Katy Perry — she’s my girl.” Aaron introduced her to bands like Korn, Metallica and AC/DC.

He was not like the guys she hung out with at high school. She felt like she could talk to him about politics, God, fate — anything. They chatted for hours without getting bored.

Aaron had worked odd jobs since dropping out of high school and worked alongside Heather at the store. After work, they stayed up late, watching TV and cuddling on the couch.

One night, in mid-June, Heather said she and Aaron were hanging out in her bedroom drinking blackberry-flavored beer. They left the house while it was dark and went to his camper van parked next to the shop.

“I was just so gone and I don’t remember very much from that night,” she said. “I remember waking up and him telling me what happened.”

“Finding out that I had sex with him and that I didn’t remember it — really took a toll on me.”

Heather said she felt conflicted about that night. But she still liked Aaron and they kept dating. Aaron declined requests for an interview.

Within weeks, Heather started feeling sick and exhausted. She went to the pharmacy with a friend to buy a home pregnancy test, which came back positive. Heather was nervous. She wanted a doctor’s confirmation, just to be sure, but Aaron couldn’t drive her to the clinic — his license had been suspended for driving under the influence. She was scared to tell her dad the truth so she lied and told him she had the stomach flu and needed to see a doctor.

The doctor broke the news. Heather was pregnant.

“I just — I couldn’t believe it,” Keith said. “I was astounded.”

On the drive home, Keith called Heather’s mother, Lynnette.

“Keith said, ‘Hey, I got some news for you. Are you sitting down?’” Lynnette recalled.

“And I said, ‘Well, I am now. What’s going on?’”

“Heather’s pregnant.”

Lynnette was shocked. She didn’t think Heather was old enough to take care of herself, let alone a baby. She recalled meeting Aaron a few weeks earlier during a visit to Idaho. Her first thought was statutory rape. So she called the local police and made a report.

That night, Heather and Aaron’s families gathered in the living room behind the fly shop for an emergency meeting. Heather’s grandfather, Ken, laid out their options. Abortion was mentioned, but quickly dismissed by Heather and her family.

“Abortion is horrible. It’s terrible. It’s murder,” Keith said. “To me — that wasn’t really even an option.”

Heather and Aaron could put the baby up for adoption, Ken said. They could try running away to Canada to avoid prosecution. Or, they could keep the baby and get married.

Two days later, Officer Greg Griffel — a bespectacled man who often responded to calls about stray bears, bison, mountain lions and wolves — summoned Heather, her dad and stepmother to the precinct on Main Street for an interview. He recorded the conversation.

“Well, the reason I’m here is that I got a call from your ex-wife, Heather’s mother, who told me that you are planning on marrying a 24-year-old and could possibly be pregnant,” he said.

Heather sighed. She was annoyed.

“I’m not planning on marrying a 24-year-old,” she said.

For Officer Griffel, the age difference between Heather and Aaron was an automatic red flag. “There’s no 24-year-old on this planet who should be sleeping with a 14-year-old,” he said. “There are clearly some serious issues here.”

Griffel heard that Heather’s family had contacted an attorney to get information on how and where she could get married. Keith acknowledged this. “If she’s pregnant and the guy is going to do the right thing, then obviously we’re going to have to try to get them married,” he said.

“We just come from, you know, if you get somebody pregnant, you step up you do the right thing,” said Dana, Heather’s stepmother.

“Even at 14?” Griffel said.

About a week later, Heather had an ultrasound appointment. She saw the baby’s image for the first time.

“I remember smiling and giggling, being really happy and then, just broke down,” she said. “It all hit me at that moment: I’m pregnant, we have to do something about this. I’m confused. I’m scared. I’m 14. I don’t know what I’m doing at all.”

Heather couldn’t bring herself to give the baby up for adoption. She was going to keep the baby. And if she was keeping it, she wanted the father to be involved. That didn’t necessarily mean marriage, she said.

But with the police now investigating, marriage seemed like the best of several bad options. It could legitimize Heather and Aaron’s relationship, the adults reasoned, and allow them to raise their baby together.

In Idaho, and many other states, the act of getting married changes the rules around whether a person can be prosecuted for statutory rape. Having sex with a minor outside of marriage can result in prison time or a spot on the sex offender registry. But once vows are exchanged, the same act becomes legal.

Heather’s family said she wanted to get married. At one point, they said, she threatened to run away if they wouldn’t let her. Heather denied this.

“I feel like it was marry Aaron or he goes to jail for a long, long time,” she said, “and you’re left to raise a baby by yourself that you can’t support, that you can’t take care of by yourself.”

“Everybody ended up going to jail anyway. But nobody knew it at the time.”

How Laws Have Changed

In most states, the laws governing when minors can marry have hardly changed for decades.

For most of early American history, it was fairly common for minors — particularly girls — to get married, according to Nicholas Syrett, a history professor at the University of Kansas and the author of “American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States.” Prior generations had a less rigid understanding of “the precise line of when childhood ended and adulthood began,” he wrote.

During the Colonial era, girls as young as 12 and boys as young as 14 could legally marry. These ages were established by English common law and were thought to reflect when each gender reached the “ripe age” of puberty and were capable of consummating a union, as the legal scholar Henry Swinburne wrote in 1686.

Some colonies later set the marriage age at 18 for girls and 21 for boys. Minors of any age, however, could marry with parental consent.

A few Southern states, like South Carolina and Virginia, passed additional laws that barred girls from accessing their inheritance if they married before the age of 16 without a parent’s OK. These laws served to dissuade men who were only interested in marrying girls for their money, according to Syrett.

The U.S. government began tracking age and marital status in the late 19th century. In 1930, around 10 percent of 17-year-old girls were married, according to Census data. However, attitudes towards such young marriages were beginning to shift.

In January 1937, 22-year-old Charlie Johns married his 9-year-old neighbor, Eunice Winstead. Johns was a quiet, tobacco farmer in Hancock County, Tennessee. The couple falsified Winstead’s age in order to get a marriage license. At the time, however, there was no minimum marriage age in Tennessee and minors did not need parental permission.

News of their union prompted outrage around the country. National magazines and newspapers jumped to report the story. In a photo essay entitled, “The Case of the Child Bride” published in LIFE magazine, Winstead smiled tentatively next to her lanky, six-foot tall husband.

Nine-year-old Eunice Winstead Johns and her six-foot mountaineer husband, Charlie Johns, 22, are shown at their home in Sneedville, Tenn., Feb. 2, 1937. Gov. Gordon Browning of Tennessee called the marriage, which provoked widespread discussion, "Nothing Short of Tragedy." (AP Photo)
Eunice Winstead Johns, 9, with her husband, Charlie Johns, 22, at their home in Sneedville, Tennessee on Feb. 2, 1937. (Associated Press)

Within weeks, legislators in Tennessee — humiliated by the outrage around the country — passed a bill that set the minimum age of marriage at 16. States like Minnesota and Rhode Island followed suit with similar reforms, as did Washington D.C.

In the decades after, the rules around child marriage mostly faded from the national conversation. Americans became more likely to hear about efforts to combat child marriage abroad.

The State Department considers formal and informal unions where at least one person is under the age of 18 a “harmful practice with negative health, education and economic repercussions for girls, families and communities,” according to a spokesperson. The U.S. has also dedicated millions every year to combating child marriage abroad through the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Since there is no federal law governing the age of marriage, the issue has played out on the state level, where efforts to amend the marriage age have often been slow and sporadic. Like the case of 9-year-old Eunice Winstead, changes have often been prompted by outrage over a particular couple’s story.

In 2006, lawmakers in Georgia voted to raise the minimum marriage age to 16 after a 37-year-old woman married her son’s 15-year-old friend to avoid child molestation charges. In 2007, Delaware passed a new law that requires anyone under the age of 18 to petition a judge for permission to marry.

The law was drafted by Ken Boulden, a 70-year-old clerk of the peace in Wilmington, after he was asked to issue a marriage license to a pregnant, 14-year-old girl. The girl was terrified, according to Boulden, but had her mother’s permission to marry a 27-year-old man. Boulden said he refused to grant the marriage license. He asked the couple to return to his office a few days later and 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. I’ve had people walk out in the middle of ceremonies because they got cold feet,” said Boulden, who said he has performed approximately 15,000 marriages. “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.”

After the Honeymoon

After returning from Missouri, Heather and Aaron spent two days on a honeymoon. Aaron’s grandparents left town and handed the keys to their green and white bungalow to the newly-wed couple.

“I was like, wow, this is our house right now,” Heather said. “This is what it will be like in the future.”

They meandered through the day, watching cooking shows, laughing and talking. For breakfast, Heather said she made Aaron two fried eggs on toast and a sausage to resemble a smiling face.

When the honeymoon ended, Heather and Aaron returned to her grandparents’ house above the fly-fishing shop. They slept in a camper van on the property. Heather began sophomore year of high school. Aaron struggled to find work.

After getting married, Heather and Aaron lived in a camper van on her grandparent’s property.
After getting married, Heather and Aaron lived in a camper van on her grandparents’ property. (Anjali Tsui/FRONTLINE)

Then, over Labor Day weekend, Heather started feeling sick. Her grandmother took her to the hospital — she was having a miscarriage. Heather said the doctor told her the baby’s heart had stopped beating roughly nine weeks into the pregnancy — around the week of her wedding.

“It was just a slap in the face,” she said. “We got married because of this baby, and now, it’s gone.”

A week later, Officer Griffel came by the fly shop with a warrant to arrest Aaron. Griffel had received a call from Lynnette, who only learned about the marriage after it had already happened.

“To find out that there was a law to say that my ex-husband could go behind my back and marry my daughter off permanently … I was in shock,” Lynette said. “I looked it up and I was like: Are you kidding me? Are you serious?”

Aaron was charged with statutory rape. Although Idaho law allowed Heather and Aaron to have sex as husband and wife, Aaron could still be prosecuted for having sex with a minor prior to marriage.

“If you’re married, then you’re legally allowed to have intercourse with each other,” Griffel said. “If you’re not married, of course, you are not allowed to have intercourse with a 14-year-old juvenile.”

“Like I said, if this would have occurred after they were married, there probably wasn’t a lot that law enforcement could have done about it.”

Keith was arrested the following Wednesday as he was driving home. He was charged with two counts of injury to a child and one count of accessory to rape.

At the end of September, Heather took the stand in a wood-paneled courtroom. She reluctantly testified against Aaron at a pre-trial hearing — just six weeks after their wedding.

She felt terrible about her dad’s arrest. Although Karl Lewies, the county prosecutor, had made no promises, she hoped that he’d considering dropping the charges against her dad if she agreed to cooperate.

“Heather, how old is your husband?” Lewies asked.

“He’s 24,” she said.

“How old were you when … the defendant first had sexual intercourse with you?”

“I was 14.”

After verifying the date and location of their marriage, Lewies pushed further.

“Why did you marry the defendant?”

“I loved him — ”

Heather paused.

“ — and after I found out I was pregnant, I told my parents that I wanted my child to grow up with both of their parents.”

At the end of the questioning, Lewies asked: “How is your marriage working out?”

“It’s been hard through all of this, but things are going OK.”

“No further questions, your honor,” he said.

In reality, things between Heather and Aaron were not OK. Heather dropped out of school when Aaron was arrested. After he was released on bail, Heather lived with him at his grandparents’ house. They struggled to get by financially and bought groceries with food stamps. Heather said he slept in on most days and filled his time with video games. She got a minimum wage job serving burgers and milkshakes at a local chain restaurant. When she returned home, she cooked for Aaron and did his laundry.

“When I first thought about it, I was like, ‘Oh, a wife! That’s going to be fun. Your husband’s working. You get to do all the housework, all the cooking, all the cleaning … everything,” she said. “And then, after I got married — there has to be a fine line between being a wife and being a slave.”

Heather said they often got into fights and Aaron got angry. She was sometimes scared of him.

The difficulties that Heather faced are not uncommon among those who marry young.

Women who married as minors were more likely to experience mental health issues, such as clinical depression, compared to those who married later in life, according to a 2011 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

A Texas Women’s University survey found that women and girls who were threatened with forced marriage reported higher rates of domestic violence.

While Heather was determined to stay with Aaron, Lynnette wanted her daughter out of the marriage. “I had to do what my mama gut felt, and it was — get my daughter out of this situation,” she said.

As Aaron’s case proceeded through the courts, Lynnette hired a lawyer to annul their marriage. The judge considered all the circumstances — the statutory rape case and the fact that the family had gone against Lynnette’s wishes — and undid the marriage.

By December 2015, Heather and Aaron were no longer husband and wife. A temporary restraining order, requested by Lynette, kept them apart.

Aaron soon pled guilty to statutory rape. He admitted that he knew Heather was 14 when they had sex. “Me and her were just sitting on the couch talking, and we began to kiss, and it just kinda led into intercourse,” he said in court.

During his sentencing, in April 2016, Aaron explained why he married Heather.

“Heather found out that she was pregnant, and I had decided to try to take up the responsibility and be there for her and the child — the unborn child,” he said.

Aaron apologized to Heather and to his family members. He said that his time behind bars gave him a chance to grow closer to God and that he was interested in studying to become a minister.

He was sentenced to 15 years in prison with an option for parole after three years. He will be required to undergo sex offender and substance abuse treatment. If Aaron serves the full sentence, he will be 40 years old when he is released from the Idaho State Correctional Institute in Boise. Once he is released, he will be on the sex offender registry for at least 10 years, and potentially, the rest of his life.

Keith pleaded guilty to one charge: injury to a child. He spoke about his regret during his sentencing.

“I love my daughter very much and never would I want to do anything to intentionally harm her. Looking back on the situation and what transpired, I realized that was the wrong decision,” he said.

Judge Greg Moeller berated Keith for failing to protect his daughter. Keith was sentenced to four months, or 120 days, in jail.

“The 120 days strikes the court as just because that’s approximately how long this vile farce of a marriage lasted,” Moeller said. “And perhaps as you spend each of those 120 days in jail, you can think about the 120 days your daughter was married to a rapist because of you.”

A New Fight in the States

News of the verdict spread online. Tabloid headlines portrayed Keith as a father who forced his daughter to marry a rapist.

The story got picked up by KMOV — a local TV station in St. Louis. Jean Evans, a realtor turned state legislator in Missouri, was shocked to learn about the story.

In December 2016, Evans introduced a bill that would require minors to be at least 17 years old to apply for a marriage license from a court clerk with one parent’s permission.

“We have to continue to look at children as children,” said Evans, a Republican and evangelical Christian. “We don’t let them buy alcohol or cigarettes or vote or serve their country — I don’t know why we’re allowing them to get married.”

Some legislators balked at the idea of preventing young teens from marrying under special circumstances such as a pregnancy. As part of a compromise, the measure was amended to allow minors 16 or younger to marry with a judge’s approval as long as their prospective spouse is under 21. The bill, however, failed to pass.

In other states, advocates continue to fight to set the minimum marriage age at 18, with no exceptions. They argue that because of their legal status as children, it is extremely difficult for minors to get help or leave an abusive relationship. In some states, minors cannot access a domestic violence shelter, apply for a protective order or petition for a divorce without the help of an adult.

“When somebody aged 17 or younger called us, there was almost nothing we could do to help. If we tried to help her leave home, she’s considered a runaway,” said Fraidy Reiss, the director of Unchained At Last, an organization that is lobbying legislators to raise the marriage age to 18. “If we manage to get her to a shelter, most shelters would turn her away.”

Advocates have run into resistance from lawmakers and groups on both sides of the political spectrum who have voiced reluctance to completely banning marriage for all minors. Some minors, they say, should be allowed to marry under certain circumstances.

So far, advocates have struck a few compromises in statehouses across the country. This year, New York raised its minimum marriage age from 14 to 17, Connecticut banned marriage before 16 and Texas passed a law that will only allow 16 and 17 year olds who are already emancipated — or given the legal rights of an adult — to marry.

David Bates, a Republican legislator in New Hampshire, vocally opposed a bill in his home state that would have raised the marriage age to 18. Bates worried that soldiers, who may join the military at 17, might be prevented from marrying their partners before being deployed. A ban would also lead to more single-parent households, he argued.

“If we pass this we will be ensuring forever that every child born to a minor is born out of wedlock,” he said.

In some states, like California, opposition has come from civil liberty groups and lawyers who work with foster youth.

The American Civil Liberties Union of California argued that banning marriage before 18 “unnecessarily and unduly intrudes on the fundamental right of marriage.”

The Children’s Law Center of California, a group that offers legal services to foster youth, worried that raising the marriage age would strip minors of one of their only pathways to exit foster care through emancipation.

After the Annulment

What if she hadn’t had the beer?

What if her mom didn’t call the police?

What if she didn’t lose the baby?

These are the questions that weigh on Heather’s mind. She only has answers for one of them: The baby’s name would have been Dahlia Ann. She would be a year-and-a-half by now.

Heather moved to a suburb outside of Salt Lake City to live with her mom. She keeps in touch with Keith, who is out of jail. They see each other around once a month. She worked at Subway for a while. The double shifts became exhausting so she quit. A few months later, she started a new job at Chick-fil-A. She said she dreams of becoming a preschool teacher and plans to get her GED someday.

Heather got her driver's license after turning 16.
Heather got her driver’s license after turning 16. (Anjali Tsui/FRONTLINE)

In some ways, Heather is like a regular 17-year-old. She got her driver’s license earlier this year and binge watched “13 Reasons Why,” a show on Netflix about a high school student who commits suicide. She has a new boyfriend and can’t wait until she turns 18 so she can move in with him.

Heather often thinks back to the summer she met Aaron. Looking back, she said, 14 seems incredibly young to be considering marriage.

“When you go through losing a husband, losing a child, losing basically a parent and going through hell and then coming out of it and being OK — you can pretty much go through anything,” she said.

“What I always say is you can’t grow back down after you’ve grown up.”

Correction: Due to errors in data provided to FRONTLINE by the Tennessee Department of Health, an earlier version of this story incorrectly included Tennessee among a list of states in which children as young as 10, 11 and 12 were given marriage licenses.



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The filmmakers of "Ukraine: Life Under Russia's Attack" spoke about documenting life under bombardment and why they felt it was important to bring this story to an American audience.
August 2, 2022