Child Marriage in AmericaListen
Raney Aronson: I’m Raney Aronson, Executive Producer of the PBS investigative series FRONTLINE. This is the FRONTLINE Dispatch. Today, an investigation into child marriage in America.
Raney Aronson: At FRONTLINE, we’re known for our documentary films. But so often over the years, our producers have come across stories that they can’t capture on camera. Stories better told in sound. This is one of them.
Heather: I thought it was going to be a dream come true. Married with a great husband, soon to have a kid, great life, working…and, you know, and it seemed wonderful when I thought about it for the time being. But then I thought to myself, and I’m like, “What am I doing?” 14.
Raney Aronson: More than 200,000 minors were legally married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2015. It’s a complicated and divisive issue, and it’s coming up in statehouses across the country, with some people arguing that minors should be allowed to marry under certain circumstances, and others calling for a total ban on marriage before the age of 18.
Demonstrators: End child marriage now, ask us and we’ll tell you how!
Raney Aronson: Our reporter Anjali Tsui has spent the last year tracking down marriage data and speaking with people on both sides of the issue. She also spoke with young people who had married recently and will take you deep inside one of those marriages. This story goes in a lot of directions… but at the very heart of what she’s found is this question: how do we legislate growing up in America? We put laws around many markers of adulthood…in most states you can drive by 16, vote by 18, drink by 21. But when should you be allowed to marry? Here’s Anjali Tsui.
Anjali Tsui: Before I started reporting this story, I assumed that child marriage happens in places far from the United States. And maybe that’s because when you hear about it on the news it’s almost always framed that way. Here’s former President Barack Obama speaking in Kenya last year:
President Obama: There’s no place in civilized society for the early or forced marriage of children. These traditions may date back centuries; they have no place in the 21st century.
Anjali Tsui: But here in America, I found cases of child marriage in every state where there was data available from the past 15 years. And I’ve come across dozens of personal stories of people who married young. They are black, white, Latina and Asian. Some are recent immigrants. But others have been in the United States for many generations. They come from Jewish, Muslim, Christian families. It’s really a diverse group…but there are some things that most minors who marry have in common. It’s almost always underage girls – mostly 16 and 17 year olds, but sometimes as young as 10 and 11. They tend to marry adult men who are 18, 19 or in their early twenties. Sometimes, though, these adults were in their 40s, 50s and even over 60.
Anjali Tsui: I’m going to get to the broader implications of all this, but to really get a sense of what it means I wanted to talk to someone who had been married recently, to find out how she got there. And that’s how I met Heather. Heather’s from Idaho, which based on our reporting had the highest rate of child marriage in the country. It was most common in places that are poor and rural – and Heather’s hometown is both. It’s also tiny: only about 400 households were listed in the last census. And it’s beautiful – flat and dusty potato fields stretching out to the distance to meet the base of the Grand Tetons, whose jagged peaks loom over the town. Heather doesn’t live there anymore... I’ll get to that. But her grandparents and her father and her step-mother all do. They run a fly-fishing shop in the summer and breed mini schnauzers in the winter.
Anjali Tsui: It’s dinner time, and the family has invited me and my producer Sophie over to their house.
Keith: Dear lord, we just come to you tonight and we thank you for the guests that we have and we thank you for...
Anjali Tsui: That’s Heather’s dad, Keith.
Keith: ...all things and we ask that you just be with us and watch over us lord, keep us safe father. We praise your name. Amen.
Anjali Tsui: Earlier in the day, Keith showed us around the family’s bright yellow fly-fishing store.
Keith: When we, when we got it painted we said - we want it SpongeBob yellow.
Anjali Tsui: The shop is packed with fishing equipment and everything that you could possibly need to tie flies.
Keith: So you got like mallard’s breast, and wood duck and…this is squirrel tail.
Sophie McKibben: Do you mind describing what it looks like?
Keith: It looks like a squirrel tail.
Anjali Tsui: Keith gamely answers our questions about fly-fishing. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m here because of a tabloid headline that read – “Father Takes Daughter to Missouri to Marry Her Rapist”
Anjali Tsui: The headline made Keith sound so menacing, but in person, he just seemed like a regular dad. And he lit up when I asked him about his daughter, Heather.
Keith: Heather was good at school. She did a good job most of the time.
Anjali Tsui: What kinds of things was she into as a little kid?
Keith: She was into Barney, real heavily. We’d watch Barney shows all the time. She’d go, “Barney, Barney.”
Anjali Tsui: Like everyone in the family, Heather helped out in the fly-fishing shop:
Heather: I used to be the worm girl. Putting worms in a cup, filling it with dirt. Everybody that came in: “Hey, worm girl!” You know.
Anjali Tsui: When Heather was seven, her parents divorced and she moved in with her mom. The split was hard on Heather. She had some tough and traumatic times during middle school and was diagnosed with anxiety and severe depression. Eventually, she moved back in with her dad and started high school. She still worked at the shop and graduated from “worm girl” to cashier. Then, in the summer of 2015, when Heather was 14, the family needed more help, so they took on some extra workers. One of the new workers had a son named Aaron.
Heather: I just, caught just a little glimpse of him really quick, and then he left again, and I asked my stepmom, I was like, “who’s that” and she just looks at me and she’s like, “Stay away. He’s too old for you.”
Anjali Tsui: Despite the warning, Heather was intrigued by Aaron. They chatted about music, religion… and before long, Aaron got a job at the fly shop, and the two of them started dating.
Heather: Like his eyes would just stop time whenever he talked. We could talk for hours and it would feel like you know five minutes. You know, I never really had that deep connection with someone where you could literally talk about, you know, the dictionary, and I would sit there and I would smile and I would listen like an idiot. That's probably what I found most attractive about him, was his way to bring anything to life.
Anjali Tsui: At first, Heather and Aaron kept their relationship a secret. But the adults say they never seriously considered that they might be interested in each other. Here’s Heather’s grandma and stepmom:
Dana: Aaron was like…Aaron who, you know? Going bald, short, not really all that attractive.
Linda: It’s like what kind of interest would she have in him?
Anjali Tsui: For Heather though, something just clicked.
Anjali Tsui: You were 14 that summer and Aaron was…how old was Aaron?
Heather: Aaron was 24.
Anjali Tsui: So that’s 10 years. Did that age difference kind of strike you…like did you notice it when you guys were hanging out?
Heather: It did, and we talked about it. He told me a lot of times, “You don’t act 14,” you know, “You don’t look 14.” So it came up, and I told him, I was like, “You know, we’ve got to be careful because I don’t want you getting in trouble. I don’t want anybody getting in trouble.” You know and then.
Anjali Tsui: But Heather says she was falling in love. They’d spend hours talking and cuddling on the couch. And then…one night, Heather says…they drank some blackberry-flavored beer.
Heather: I was just so gone. And um I don’t remember very much from that night. I remember waking up and him telling me what happened, and I’m like, “What happened?” You know “Did we use protection” was a big one.
Heather: And I told him you know flat out, I said I'm like… I don’t remember anything.
Heather: And so, finding out that I had sex with him and that I didn’t remember — it really took a toll on me.
Anjali Tsui: Aaron declined our request for an interview. Heather says she felt conflicted about that night. But she liked Aaron — they kept dating. Then, about a month and a half later.
Heather: I started waking up sick. And I would go outside first thing in the morning and just throw up. And I told Aaron I was going to take the tests, so he you know comes out, and I have a pregnancy test in my hand and I just show it to him. And I’m like, “well, you’re going to be a father.” And he was actually very excited, as was I at first.
Anjali Tsui: Heather wanted a doctor’s confirmation, but remember – she’s 14. Can’t drive. And Aaron couldn’t take her because his license was suspended for drunk driving. Heather didn’t know how to tell her dad that she was pregnant, so she lied and told her dad that she had the stomach flu. He drove her down to the clinic.
Heather: And I kept telling my dad, I was like, “oh, I’m sure it’s nothing.” And then the doctor walks in, and he just has this expression on his face. He has this little red book about baby stuff and my stepmom looks like she’s going to die. And my dad just…his face is flushed.
Keith: We kinda, we were in shock. I mean we were in complete shock...
Heather: And I’m just sitting there, and I’m like, “oh, no, it was not a false positive.” And just silence. And then you hear the doctor, “Well, congratulations! You’re pregnant.” And I’m just like, “not congratulations!”
Keith: It was like ... you know these are the things you hear about on TV but you never think you’re going to live through that, to see your, you know, 14-year-old daughter pregnant.
Anjali Tsui: On the drive home from the doctor’s office, Keith called his family and asked them to gather in the living room for an emergency meeting. Aaron’s family was there too. Here’s Heather’s grandpa Ken:
Ken: And we said, “okay, you guys have, you know, basically made a major mistake here.” And I kind of gave them a rundown of options. You know, they could get married, they could run away to Canada, you know, if they wanted to avoid Aaron getting in trouble, you know. I mean, those are options. Heather can have the baby, she can live here, go back to school. We’ll, you know everybody would help raise the baby. You can put it up for adoption. I mean I gave them all, there were you know, six or seven choices they had, you know? And I said, “you guys kind of made your bed, so you’re basically going to have to sleep in it,” you know?
Anjali Tsui: Abortion was mentioned but quickly taken off the table by Heather and her family. Here’s Keith:
Keith: Abortion is horrible. It's terrible. It's murder. And so you know to me that wasn’t really even an option.
Anjali Tsui: Pretty soon there were only two real options: adoption, or marriage. Heather’s dad says he was torn about what to do. Giving the baby up would allow Heather to have a more normal life. But his faith was also a factor:
Keith: With what I believe in, you know, if somebody gets somebody pregnant, they should marry them, you know, plain and simple.
Anjali Tsui: And there was something else, too…
Lynette: Keith said, “Hey, I got some news for you. Are you sitting down?” And I said, “Well, I am now. What’s going on?” And he said, “Heather’s pregnant.” I was "What?" I was like, “What?” My first thought was statutory rape.
Anjali Tsui: That’s Lynette, Heather’s mom. She’d moved far away after the divorce…and had a rocky relationship with Heather. But she felt like she needed to do something.
Lynette: You know, being a parent, I was like, called the cops and said, hey, this has happened, my daughter’s pregnant. Yeah. What can I do here? You know? What can be done?
Officer Griffel: I did receive a call from dispatch and was asked to return a call to the mother of a juvenile daughter. And she told me that she had been informed that her daughter, like I said, who's 14 years old, was pregnant, and it was very possible that the father of the child was a 24-year-old male. And she, of course, was very distraught about this.
Anjali Tsui: That’s Officer Greg Griffel. The day after Lynette’s call, he went to the yellow fly fishing shop looking for answers. No one was home except for Heather’s grandfather, Ken, who confirmed Lynette’s story and mentioned that the family was considering marriage.
Officer Griffel: So they were already planning. You know they already had, I think, in their minds, to let these two get married.
Anjali Tsui: Officer Griffel called Heather, her dad and stepmom in for an interview.
Anjali Tsui: He recorded the conversation.
Griffel: Okay, well the reason I’m here is that I got a call from your ex wife
Griffel: Heather’s mother, who told me that you are planning on marrying a 24-year-old. And could possibly be pregnant.
Heather: Sighs. I am not planning on marrying a 24-year-old.
Griffel: There is not a 24-year-old on this planet that should be sleeping with a 14-year-old.
Dana: We agree!
Griffel: He is ... there is some serious issues there.
Anjali Tsui: The serious issue there was statutory rape. In Idaho, it’s a felony for an adult over 18 to have sex with anyone younger than 16. Officer Griffel was building a case against Aaron. He was also trying to figure out if Heather’s dad was serious about letting her get married.
Keith: If she is pregnant, and the guy is going to do the right thing, then we’re obviously going to have to try to get them married.
Griffel: Well I don’t think you can get married.
Anjali Tsui: Eventually, Heather and her family left the police station and went home, panicked. But Officer Griffel was just getting started.
Griffel: Oh at that point, you're, you’re in detective mode, thinking about everything you need to do to confirm and process this case, this incident. As for what was going through my mind, I’m a father of 3, 3 daughters, and it was unfathomable to me that a father of a 14-year-old that had been impregnated by a 24-year-old that was raped, given alcohol, was intoxicated and taken advantage of, so she, you know, was raped, would not come forward to law enforcement as he's required to do, but you know rather looked at other avenues as actually letting this individual marry his 14-year-old daughter instead of being a protective father like he should have been. Allowing, I'll just say it, allowing a rapist to marry your daughter.
Keith: We should have talked to the police and turned Aaron in, especially if I would have known the whole situation.
Anjali Tsui: Keith says, among other details, he didn’t know about the alcohol. Here he is with my producer Sophie:
Keith: I didn’t want Aaron to go to jail either, I mean I didn’t particularly like him after what he did to Heather, but I didn’t want him going to jail...I didn’t know at the time that he raped Heather. It was, Heather told me it was consensual.
Sophie McKibben: Were you aware that it was statutory rape?
Keith: No, I was not.
Anjali Tsui: Everything was happening fast. And in the middle of it, Heather still had the normal pregnancy stuff she needed to do. So a week after talking to Officer Griffel, she went in for an ultrasound.
Anjali Tsui: How did you react when you heard the heartbeat for the first time?
Heather: I remember smiling and giggling, being really happy, and then just broke down. You know and, um, just you know like it all hit me at that moment. I’m pregnant, you know 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.
Anjali Tsui: After the ultrasound, Heather knew she’d never be able to give her baby up for adoption. Her mind was made up – she was keeping it. And if she was keeping the baby, she wanted the father involved. That didn’t necessarily mean marriage, she says. But now that the police were investigating, keeping the baby could mean real trouble for Aaron – a baby would be the physical proof that Officer Griffel needed to show that Aaron had slept with Heather.
Anjali Tsui: Around this time, Aaron’s family met with a lawyer, Rusty Hanson. They told him what had happened, and the options that they were considering. This is Rusty Hanson.
Rusty Hanson: They were hoping that the marriage would be a cure all. And I told them that it absolutely wouldn’t. That it would be for future conduct, and it might affect the way that the judge considered the relationship...
Anjali Tsui: Hanson says he thought maybe if they got married, before Aaron was arrested, the judge might think: well, yeah, he shouldn’t have slept with her, but he clearly loves her, so maybe it’s not right to punish this so harshly. I ran this idea by Nick Syrett. He’s a professor at the University of Kansas and a leading authority on child marriage in the United States.
Nick Syrett: The laws don’t say that explicitly. Sometimes marriage doesn’t get people out of prosecution, but lots of district attorneys have chosen if the parties seem to be willing, if the parents are in favor of it, this seems to be like a reasonable solution to not prosecute the man who otherwise would be guilty of statutory rape.
Anjali Tsui: After talking to the lawyer, everyone gathered in the living room and made a final decision — Heather and Aaron would get married and raise the baby together.
Anjali Tsui: Heather’s family says Heather wanted to get married — and that at one point, she even threatened to run away if they wouldn’t let her. Heather, though, denies all this. But either way, Heather’s family decided on marriage. They believed it was what the bible advised. And they hoped that it would keep Aaron out of prison. But no one told Heather’s mother about their plan – they figured she’d never agree to it.
Lynette: I don’t think anybody should be allowed to get married before they’re 18. Kids nowadays just want to hurry and grow up so fast.
Anjali Tsui: Once the decision was made they had to find a state where a 14-year-old and a 24-year-old could legally marry. As we mentioned earlier, this part gets a little complicated – and in a moment, we’ll put this Idaho story in the larger context – but for now, here’s how it works: marriage is governed at the state level, so there’s no one, national law. Around the country, you have to be at least 18 to get married on your own... But minors can get married in every state under certain circumstances. In most states, minors need at least one parent’s permission (and some states ask for both parents to sign off)...Sometimes, the young person has to get a judge’s approval. That’s how it is in Idaho when you’re under 16 … and Heather says it’s why they decided to marry somewhere else.
Heather: 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.
Anjali Tsui: So Heather’s grandmother jumped on the computer and started shopping around for states with more lenient laws.
Linda: So I spent an entire day probably going through the different places and Missouri was the closest one.
Anjali Tsui: In Missouri, if your parent’s are divorced, you can get married at 15 with just one parent’s signature. And conveniently, Heather’s 15th birthday was just three days away.
Heather: And it was “bingo!” You know, a godsend, I suppose. So...yeah. So um, Missouri it was.
Anjali Tsui: Heather’s grandmother called the courthouse to confirm that Heather and Aaron could legally marry. It was Wednesday night. They figured if they worked fast enough, Heather and Aaron could be husband and wife by Monday. But there was still the problem of Heather’s mom, Lynette.
Sophie McKibben: Did it feel wrong to you ever, that you that Lynnette really didn’t want this to happen, and you knew she didn’t want it to happen?
Keith: Yeah, it did feel wrong to me.
Anjali Tsui: But the question of whether or not to tell Lynette was pushed aside to make room for questions about dresses, bouquets, and boutonnieres.
Heather: Then we spent the next three days running around, putting together wedding stuff, buying a wedding dress, you know getting a bouquet...
Keith: Yeah, I took Heather down to Rexburg to find her a dress. And we found her this purple dress that she really liked, and so we got that.
Heather: And I remember trying it on, and coming out, and my dad started tearing up. And he told me, he was like, “I can’t believe this.” He was like, “I can’t believe that you’re getting married.” You know he’s like, “we’re shopping for your wedding dress.” So he bought me that, and then he asked me if I wanted a new pair of shoes. I told him I didn’t. I was like, “I’ll just wear the ones I wore to prom.”
Anjali Tsui: The morning of Heather’s 15th birthday, everyone packed into a van. They drove through the night, only pulling over to get gas and for Heather to throw up. She was in her first trimester, and feeling sick all the time. Heather says they asked her, again and again, is this what you really want?
Heather: By that time I was, I thought we were already on our way. This was already a thing, everybody was already ready, so let’s just do it.
Anjali Tsui: It was a long drive, but they made it, and on the morning of August 17th 2015, the wedding party walked into a courthouse in Kansas City, Missouri.
Anjali Tsui: Tell us a little bit about, you know, walking into the court house, the clerk’s office. You know what was the-?
Keith: It was weird, it was just weird. I mean the whole thing was weird cause it was my daughter, and she was, you know, here she was going to be getting married here in a little bit. The weird part was, it was to a 24-year-old bald guy. So...
Anjali Tsui: By the way, you’ll hear the word “weird” a surprising number of times…it’s the adjective that everybody uses to describe the day.
Sophie McKibben: Did anyone in the courthouse think it was weird that you were so young?
Heather: Nobody even acted weird about it. I don’t know, like they even asked, like, what our ages were, and like we talked to them, they looked at our IDs, and just like all this stuff. And like…nobody even seemed weirded out by it.
Anjali Tsui: Even if the Missouri clerk had wanted to intervene, there wasn’t much she could do. Once Heather’s dad gave his consent, she approved their license to marry.
Anjali Tsui: Keith says he’d been looking forward to Heather’s wedding day since she was a little girl.
Keith: She, she had the purple dress on, and she had her hair up, and it was in a French braid, and she just looked beautiful.
Anjali Tsui: Keith walked her up the gravel path to the picnic table where the officiant was waiting.
Keith: That was a dad’s dream. You know, being able to walk his daughter down the aisle.
Anjali Tsui: Holding hands and facing each other, Heather and Aaron recited their vows. Heather’s grandmother videotaped the ceremony:
Unidentified wedding guest: Take your first kiss as Mr. and Mrs.!
Wedding guests: Woohoo!
Anjali Tsui: During the ceremony there’s this moment that I’ve replayed over and over. It happens quickly – Heather’s asked by the officiant – are you here today of your own free will?
Anjali Tsui: Do you remember that moment?
Heather: I do. Um I almost puked. And I remember just thinking, I was like, “I should say something, I should probably say something.” But then I was like, “I wasn’t forced.” I was like, “I was influenced, but I wasn’t forced.” I was like, “So if I said something, I’d be lying.” I know, you know, there was the occasional, “is this what you what?” you know from everybody and then everybody would just turn and look at me and I’m like, “um, yeah, no pressure Heather, it’s either this or everybody goes to jail, basically. Everybody ended up going to jail anyways, but um you know nobody knew that at the time, so.
Anjali Tsui: We’re going to come back to Heather in a bit…find out what she means…about everyone going to jail…but first, I want to tell you why I was interested in all of this in the first place.
I’ve always been curious about child marriage because it’s a part of my family’s story. My father is Chinese and my mother is from India and my grandmother on my mom’s side was 12 years old when she got married. My grandfather was 22. This was the 1950s in India. And their marriage was arranged. Earlier this year, I had a chance to sit down with my grandmother to talk about all this. I’d always wondered: what was it like to build a life with someone she barely knew? How did it feel to quit school and leave her family? She told me that things for them happened in reverse: they barely spoke before their wedding day and got to know each other after they were already married. They grew to love each other and celebrated their 50th anniversary before my grandfather passed away.
When you hear about child marriage in the news, you hear about nations like India a lot. Not so much America. And part of that is because child marriage happens a lot more in India and other non-Western countries. But Nick Syrett – the scholar we heard from earlier – says there’s another reason, too:
Nick Syrett: From the 19th century onwards, there’s always been an enormous amount of publicity about those other nations allowing children to marry, so much so that it’s difficult to think about child marriage as anything other than a problem in other nations. It’s one of the ways that Christian missionaries and that progressive era reformers, all kinds of people, framed the United States as more civilized or better than other countries, was to say, “they allow for these horrifying backward practices like child marriage, which surely don’t occur in the United States.”
Anjali Tsui: It’s easy to see that view reflected in U.S. policy abroad. The government has spent millions of taxpayer dollars every year on programs to help end child marriage in countries like Bangladesh, Nepal and Ethiopia. The U.S. State Department calls marriage before 18 a quote “harmful practice.” And the issue has also been a focus of Congress as recently as September 2016.
Marco Rubio: Good morning. This, the title of this hearing is protecting girls, global efforts to end child marriage.
Anjali Tsui: That’s Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
Marco Rubio: There are roughly 250 women--250 million women alive today who were married before the age of 15. The devastating impact it has on girls and sometimes boys is impossible to overstate. As a father of four with two school age girls, these statistics are particularly sobering as each number represents a girl denied the opportunity to live up to her God-given potential. It represents a bride whose wedding day is not a celebration but rather a memorial as she marks what could only be described as the death of her childhood.
Anjali Tsui: Over the course of this Senate foreign relations hearing, we hear about Egyptian girls, Indian girls. When lawmakers discuss this issue, they’re usually focused on girls abroad. But that’s changing, as advocates bring attention to the thousands of girls, who like Heather, have been married here. Most state laws that govern marriage before 18 haven’t changed in decades. But a few have – even if it wasn’t always organized or systematic. Take Delaware for instance, where the laws changed because of a single rogue clerk named Ken Boulden.
Ken Boulden: To date I’ve done approximately 15 thousand marriage ceremonies in my career. 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. I’m 70 years old, so this isn’t my first rodeo. And about a decade or so ago I noticed a steady stream of young people coming in to apply for marriage licenses. And when I say a steady stream it was at least two three perhaps four sometimes a month. I recall specifically a young girl who was terrified, literally scared to death, could hardly speak, was coming in to get a marriage license. She was 14 years old and she was applying, her mother was coming in to sign to give permission for her to be married and she was there with a male who was 27 years old applying to be the groom. And 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.
Anjali Tsui: Boulden knew that it was his job to issue the license but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. So he told the family to come back a couple days later. And when they did, he had the police there waiting.
Ken Boulden: They were coming back in expecting me to do a marriage ceremony instead, I had the mother arrested for child endangerment and for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. I had the male arrested on a charge of statutory rape. The truth is I’ll never ever no matter how old I get, forget the look on her face. The child was so grateful.
Anjali Tsui: Boulden went home and – just as a citizen – decided to start the process to propose a new law that would make it harder for minors to get married in Delaware. It passed in 2007, and now he travels all around the country, giving workshops for other clerks about what to do when this happens in their offices …But advocates say that’s not enough, because even though the laws are stricter now in Delaware, you can go to the next state over, and marry there.
Demonstrator: Right now child marriage, or marriage before the age of 18, is legal in all 50 U.S. states.
Anjali: This spring there was a rally in Boston. Activists wore wedding dresses, chanted, sang songs.
Demonstrator: Are we ok with child marriage?
Demonstrator: So here’s a fact…
Anjali Tsui: They say not only can child marriage have devastating impacts, but in some states, a married child doesn’t have the same rights as an adult – which means they can’t file for divorce on their own or get a restraining order. Fraidy Reiss runs an advocacy organization that helps girls fleeing forced or abusive marriages.
Fraidy Reiss: When somebody aged 17 or younger called us, there was almost nothing that we could do to help. If we tried to help her leave home, she’s considered a runaway, the police will find her, try to return her to her home, they might even charge us criminally for helping. If we manage to get her to a shelter, most shelters would turn her away. We’ve had shelters tell us if a girl is 17 and turning 18 tomorrow, bring her back tomorrow. And I never ever say that the reason a child shouldn't marry is because a child isn't mature enough. A child 17 and 364 days old is not an adult in the eyes of the law in most states. And she faces overwhelming legal and practical barriers if she tries to prevent herself from being forced into a marriage or tries to leave an unhappy or abusive marriage. If she's marrying for all the right reasons, delaying the marriage is not denying her the right to marry. She can still marry at 18. It's at worst an inconvenience for her to wait those few months.
Anjali Tsui: Our reporting shows that underage marriage is a lot less common than it was 15 years ago. But people advocating to ban all marriage for people under 18 say not enough attention is being paid to the issue and minors still need better protections. Jeanne Smoot, a lawyer at the Tahirih Justice Center says this matters because while some girls might choose to get married, others are pressured or coerced by their parents:
Jeanne Smoot: It can happen because parents simply want to preempt adolescent sexuality by marrying a teen earlier than they might engage in sex outside of marriage. It can happen simply because of a sense of what girls and women should do and should be in life and those kinds of limitations on gender roles and norms going forward.
Anjali Tsui: In the last few years, Smoot and other advocates have introduced legislation in a handful of states to ban all marriage before 18. But their efforts have faced an uphill battle.
Anjali Tsui: And with that, we travel to New Hampshire where the law allows girls as young as 13 and boys as young as 14 to marry. It’s been that way for 110 years. Kids need their parent’s consent and a judge’s approval. In 2013 a judge allowed the marriage of a pregnant 13-year-old. This spring, a bill to ban all marriages before 18 was introduced into the state legislature. Here’s a clip from the day:
Representative Walz: New Hampshire has a long history of recognizing the physical and emotional immaturity of teens and to show you some of the things: they cannot vote. They can't sign a contract. They can't sign a lease on an apartment. They can't buy a car. They can't buy a house. They can't open a bank account. They couldn't even toast themselves at their own wedding. They can't get a cell phone. A lottery ticket. Fireworks, cigarettes or a tattoo. We do not treat children as adults when they're under the age of 18.
Anjali Tsui: But then, another representative stood up.
Speaker: The chair recognizes the member from Windham, Rep Bates to speak against the committee report:
Representative David Bates: If we pass this we will be ensuring forever that every child born to a minor is born out of wedlock. We will be increasing the number of single parent households in our state.
Anjali Tsui: Representative Bates says he believes that kids are better off when their parents are married – even if those parents are minors themselves.
Representative David Bates: I believe anyway what many people used to believe at one time in our country, that the best environment for a child to be raised is in the family environment with their natural mother and father.
Anjali Tsui: He also told me he was concerned about soldiers who join the military at 17 and want to marry their partners before they deploy. And he says he really made up his mind when he learned most kids who marry in New Hampshire are 16 or 17.
Representative David Bates: I just think it's unreasonable to bar it completely. I think that we ought to have enough respect for people and their ability to make intelligent decisions with the assistance of their parents or legal guardians and some confidence in our courts to responsibly review these situations and make a reasonable judgment.
Anjali Tsui: Bates suggested I go talk to his colleague, Representative Jess Edwards, who is also in favor of allowing minors to marry under certain circumstances.
Representative Jess Edwards: Really the core of what I’m saying is that we should not, as a society, make it more difficult to get married than to have an abortion.
Anjali Tsui: I asked Edwards about research from social scientists that showed how people who married young are more likely to drop out of high school, live in poverty…and how the majority of those marriages end in divorce.
Representative Jess Edwards: Ok so let’s stay it’s valid research and we’ll just stipulate…. The issue still is how do we use government, what is the role of government? Is the role of government to control a person’s life? Or is the role of government to create an environment where each individual can exercise their inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Anjali Tsui: Amanda Sexton lobbied for the New Hampshire bill and works at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. She says that there are a whole lot of reasons why minors of any age shouldn’t be allowed to marry.
Amanda Sexton: You know, coming from a background of, you know, victim advocacy for victims of sexual assault and for child victims of sex trafficking, you know, the first thing that we sort of, the first way that we in my organization look at this is that it is a giant loophole for predators because, under what other circumstance can someone legally have sex with a 13 year old girl or a 14 year old boy? And the answer is they can't unless they are married.
Anjali Tsui: In the end, though, the New Hampshire bill was killed. It’s still legal for children under 18 to marry with their parent’s consent and a judge’s approval.
New Hampshire’s state house is controlled by Republicans, but across the country, bills to ban underage marriage are facing resistance from both sides of the aisle. In California, the ACLU argued that marriage is a fundamental right that shouldn’t be denied to anyone - even minors. The Children’s Law Center of California also chimed in. Here’s one of their attorneys speaking at a senate hearing:
Lucrecia Villafan: Well my name is Lucrecia Villafan. Professionally, I represent foster youth and throughout 17 years of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to see how the ability to marry has, in fact, assisted our youth.
Anjali Tsui: California is a state where minors are given the rights of an adult when they are married. So they can file a restraining order, get a divorce, and benefit from social services. For kids that Villafan works with, getting married can be a way out of the foster care system.
Lucrecia Villafan: Personally, I actually was an underage individual who got married at the age of 17. At the time that I decided to marry, I was extremely independent. After a lot of convincing, I was able to convince my parents, I was able to go in front of a judge. I was provided counseling. I was able to successfully start my family. I completed college. I was able to graduate from UCLA Law School and I have been an attorney for the last 18 years.
Anjali Tsui: Villafan is still happily married with three kids. She says not every child marriage is a tragedy. Just look at her.
Anjali Tsui: Back in Idaho, Aaron and Heather were adjusting to life as newlyweds. They went on a short honeymoon and were starting to get used to living together.
Heather: Before Aaron I have really never cooked anything so I made breakfast for us, which was fine...I did okay. So, I had two pieces of toast that I put two fried eggs on and a little slab of butter for the nose and then I made a mouth out of sausage and brought it to him. So cheesy. So cheesy.
Anjali Tsui: But there was a lot more at stake than just learning how to cook…Remember, Heather and her dad hadn’t told Heather’s mom, Lynette, about the wedding. So Lynette didn’t find out that the marriage had happened until it had already taken place. And when she did, she wasn’t happy.
Lynette: I get this phone call from Keith, and he said, hey! Heather got married! And I was like, WHAT? WHEN? Yeah so I was like WHAT? NO! And then I called Officer Griffel back and I’m like, hey, I’ve got something new for you because I was mad.
Anjali Tsui: Officer Greg Griffel says he was alarmed that Heather’s dad had consented to the wedding, but the fact that they were now married didn’t really change his case.
Griffel: If you’re married, then you are legally allowed to have intercourse with each other. If you're not married, you, of course, are not allowed to have intercourse with a 14-year-old juvenile. And, so, you know, like I said, if this would have occurred after they were married, then there probably wasn't a lot that law enforcement could have done about it.
Anjali Tsui: So to clarify, the crime Aaron committed wasn’t marrying Heather – actually, once he married her, sex between them became legal. The crime was statutory rape – and that happened before the marriage. Officer Griffel kept investigating, trying to find enough evidence to arrest Aaron.
Anjali Tsui: In the meantime, Heather dropped out of school and started working at a fast food restaurant. Aaron wasn’t able to find a job.
Heather: It was all fun, dandy roses until September, and then, phew. And then everything hit. It was, it was bad. It was really bad with everything.
Heather: When I first thought about it, I was like, “Ohh, 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, all the…you know, everything.” And then after I got married, you, there has to be a fine line between being a wife and being a slave.
Anjali Tsui: One day about a month after the wedding, Heather didn’t feel well. Her grandmother took her to the hospital - she was having a miscarriage. Heather says that’s when everything started falling apart – the pregnancy was the whole reason for the marriage, and now it was gone. She became depressed. Anxious about money. She says she and Aaron would often get into fights, and he could get really angry. She was scared of him.
Heather: But even after that, Aaron didn’t want to leave and I didn’t want to leave him.
Anjali Tsui: Heather’s mom Lynette, though, started working to see if she could separate the two of them. Heather was furious at her mother. She blamed her for the added stress caused by the police investigation and she resented the fact that her mom wanted to end her marriage. But finally, about a month after the wedding, Officer Griffel gathered enough evidence to arrest Aaron. Here’s Lynette:
Lynette: Actually, I got a voicemail from my daughter when Aaron got arrested and just really being mean to me. “Because of you…” blah blah blah. I'm like no, it’s because of what HE did, it wasn’t because of me. And he should answer for what he did.
Anjali Tsui: Heather had to go to court to testify. She says she tried to mask how rocky the relationship was getting. Here she is with Karl Lewies, the prosecutor.
Lewies: How’s your marriage working out?
Heather: Um…it’s been hard through all of this, but things are going okay.
Lewies: Heather how old is your husband?
Heather: He's 24.
Lewies: How old were you when that when the defendant first had sexual intercourse with you?
Heather: I was 14.
Lewies: Was that prior to the date of your marriage?
Anjali Tsui: Eventually, Aaron pled guilty. Here he is with the judge, Gregory Moeller.
Aaron: I'm pleading guilty to one count of statutory rape, Idaho code 18-6101 parentheses 1, a felony.
Judge Moeller: Are you feeling well and thinking clearly today?
Aaron: Yes. A little nervous, but ...
Judge Moeller: That's understandable. Okay, sir, what did you do that would make you guilty of the crime you just pled guilty to?
Aaron: I've had sexual relations with the alleged victim, or victim, at least once in the timeframe.
Anjali Tsui: Aaron was sentenced to 15 years…he’ll be eligible for parole in 3, but if he serves his full sentence he’ll be 40 by the time he’s released.
Anjali Tsui: While all this was going on, Heather’s mother, Lynette, hired a lawyer to try to annul the marriage. A judge considered all the circumstances — the statutory rape case and the fact that the family had gone against Lynette’s wishes — and decided to undo the marriage. At first, Heather was furious about the annulment, but she eventually decided she just wanted to move on. An annulment is different from a divorce — it means that legally, the marriage never happened. But that’s not how it feels to Heather.
Heather: It never goes away. He never stops being my husband. No matter how many annulments there are saying we weren’t married. No matter if we were married for four months or four years or four days. We were married. He was my husband. We had a child. We lost a child. We grieved together.
Anjali Tsui: An annulment, a husband going to jail…This is not how most stories of child marriage end. Actually, it’s not how Heather’s ends, either. Because while it’s surprising enough that her husband went to jail, what happened next is even more unusual.
Officer Griffel: Before I ask you these questions, you must understand your rights. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court...
Anjali Tsui: That’s Officer Griffel reading Heather’s father his Miranda Rights. Here’s Keith:
Keith: I was driving home, and it was probably about 5:30 at night, six o’clock at night after we closed. And I pulled up to that corner over there, and there were cops, and they turned on their lights and got out and arrested me, and
Anjali Tsui: What was that like?
Keith: It was unbelievable. It was weird. It was surreal. Sitting in there thinking like, “how can…how did I let myself get in this situation?”
Anjali Tsui: Judge Moeller found Keith guilty of one felony, injury to a child.
Judge: Now, it’s unusual that we have a case where someone’s prosecuted for having abysmally poor parental judgment. Typically we don’t send people to prison for having bad parental judgment. It’s not uncommon for parents to have bad judgment or make bad decisions towards their children. But what’s unique about this case is the severity of the bad judgment and the very serious consequences of that bad judgment. I’m going to sentence the defendant to 120 days of jail. 120 days strikes the Court as just, because that’s approximately how long this vile farce of a marriage lasted. 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.
Anjali Tsui: Keith served his sentence and was back working at working at the family fly shop when we talked to him.
Anjali Tsui: Judge Moeller had some pretty harsh words for you. I think he said, you know, “I’m sentencing you to 120 days, for every day that your daughter was in this farce of a marriage.”
Anjali Tsui: What was it like, you know, sitting in there hearing those words?
Keith: It was just weird…it was…
Sophie McKibben: Did you..when you were sitting in there, did you feel like you were guilty?
Keith: One part of me felt like I was doing what was right in God’s eyes, you know, so I wasn’t guilty, and then part of me felt like I had done something wrong in the eyes of the law, so I was guilty.
Anjali Tsui: As of this recording it’s been almost 2 years since Heather’s wedding. She’s 16 now, and living with her mom.
Lynette: While most 16 year olds are just starting to date, unfortunately, you know, my daughter has been through a lot. I’m like, you’ve got to go get your license. So I’m trying to get some excitement, you know just a little bit of the old Heather back, and “I’ve got to drive now!” You know, cause like she’s so focused on being the adult, so focused on being grown up and it just, it saddens me.
Anjali Tsui: Heather’s trying to move on with her life. She has a new boyfriend. She hasn't gone back to school yet, but dreams of someday becoming a preschool teacher.
Sophie McKibben: Do you feel like you get to be a 16-year-old?
Heather: No, I don’t. Um even if I wanted to, I don’t think I could. What I always say is just, you can’t grow back down after you’ve grown up.
Anjali Tsui: For The FRONTLINE Dispatch, I’m Anjali Tsui.
Raney Aronson: This story was reported by Anjali Tsui and produced by Sophie McKibben. Sophie is our podcast Series Producer, Jamie York is our Senior Producer, and our Creative Director and Senior Editor is Jay Allison. Jay also does our audio mixing. For PBS’s FRONTLINE, Andrew Metz is our Managing Editor, and Amy Gaines is our Associate Producer. Thanks to Series Story Editor Lauren Ezell Kinlaw, Digital Editor Jason Breslow, and our Special Counsel Dale Cohen. Thanks also to Viki Merrick and Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Music in this episode comes from Stellwagen Symphonette. The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced in WGBH's Studios in Boston and powered by PRX."
Special thanks to the Global Migration Project at Columbia Journalism School.
You can find much more of Anjali’s reporting on child marriage and share your own story at our website, pbs.org/frontlinedispatch
I'm Raney Aronson, Executive Producer of the PBS investigative series FRONTLINE, and I hope you keep listening to the FRONTLINE Dispatch. If you want more stories like this one, subscribe in Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.