The Missouri House has approved legislation which would raise the minimum age for a teenager to get married in Missouri without a judge’s permission from 15 to 17. The House adopted the measure last week by a vote of 139-1. The proposal, House Bill 270, is sponsored by Representative Jean Evans of Manchester.
Under current Missouri law, a parent can consent to the marriage of a child who is 15, 16, or 17 years old. A child who is less than 15 years old can be married based on the order of a local circuit or associate circuit judge where “good cause” has been shown or “unusual conditions” exist.
The new statute would require that a child under 17- years-old obtain a judge’s approval before they could enter into a marriage. The local judge could only authorize a marriage license for such a minor after a formal hearing in which evidence has been presented to the court “that would make such a marriage advisable.” The proposed law would flatly prohibit the marriage of a child less than 17 years of age to any person 21 years of age or older.
Representative Evans says her objective is to put an end to child marriages that are used to conceal human trafficking and abusive relationships. “It’s illegal for an adult to have sexual contact with a child, but our laws have a loophole that allows these abusers to marry their victims and get away with the crime. It’s time to close the loophole so we can protect our young people from those who would exploit and harm them.”
Activists who work to combat child sex trafficking say that Missouri is a haven for forced child marriages because of its lax laws governing the marriage of teenagers. They cite the fact that Platte County has the highest rate of teens seeking marriage licenses in the state. Platte County is home to Kansas City International Airport.
A case involving child marriage in Kansas City received widespread notoriety last year. A man from Idaho drove his 14-year-old daughter to Kansas City in August of 2015 to get married to a 24-year-old man. The two had become acquainted because their families worked together.
When it was learned that the girl was pregnant, a “family meeting” was held in which the older man told the girl’s father they were in love and wanted to spend their life together. The father agreed not to press charges of statutory rape against the man if he followed through with marrying his daughter. The father then escorted them to Missouri to ensure that the marriage occurred.
It was later learned that the girl had been impregnated by the man during a sexual assault. He was charged with felony rape in Idaho in September 2015, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. In May of last year the girl’s father pleaded guilty to injury to a child, and was sentenced to four months in jail.
Judge Gregory Moeller told the father during sentencing: “I would note that 120 days is approximately how long this vile farce of a marriage lasted. While you sit in jail, you can sit and think about the 120 days your daughter was in a vile farce of a marriage to a rapist because of you.”
St. Louis television station KMOV ran a story last year on the subject of teenagers being brought to Missouri for child marriages. The investigation by KMOV found that 800 16- and 17-year olds had been married in the state since 2012, and that 100 15-year-olds had been married in the same time frame.
A further study by the Tamirah Justice Center revealed that 860 children under the age of 16 were married in Missouri from 2000 to 2014. The group discovered that in as many as a third of such marriages the groom was over 21, with some even in their 30’s, 40’s,
Some interest groups urged the Legislature to make 18-years-old the minimum age at which a teenager could get married without approval by a judge. One such group was Unchained at Last, a nonprofit organization which helps young girls leave or avoid forced marriages.
“The reason it is important to peg marriage at the age of maturity is because a child can easily be forced into a marriage before he or she has the rights of an adult and can leave home and get into a shelter and bring legal action in his or her own name,” said Fraidy Reiss, the founder and executive director of the group. “It is very difficult to escape from a forced marriage before that.”
“We know of situations in other states where girls have shown up at the clerk’s office openly crying while their parents signed the marriage license application and forced them into marriage, and the clerks did not intervene,” Reiss observed. Reiss herself was the victim of an arranged marriage at age 19.
A group called the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence also worked in support of the bill. Jennifer Carter Dochler, the group’s public policy director, says the measure will not only help combat sex trafficking, but help keep teenagers from being victims of domestic violence.
“Some children might not have the best home life, and they think they met someone to bring them happiness. Many of these marriages turn into domestic violence situations,” Dochler says.
Representative Evans’ bill now moves to the Senate for its consideration, with sufficient time to win final passage before the Legislature adjourns on May 12th.