A parade of witnesses spoke out Wednesday in support of a bill that would end Missouri's status as the easiest place in the country for a 15-year-old to get married.
“Not every marriage is what it looks like,” said Jeremy Milarsky, policy director for the Missouri Coalition of Children’s Agencies. “This bill at leasts adds some level of protection for children.”
Some girls in Missouri have even married their rapists, an analysis by The Kansas City Star found.
For now, Missouri allows minors ages 15 to 17 to marry with the permission of only one parent, even if the other parent objects.
No one spoke Wednesday in opposition to the bill, which is sponsored by state Rep. Jean Evans, a St. Louis County Republican.
The measure would establish 15 as the minimum age to get a marriage license in Missouri. Currently, there is no age requirement to get married in the state. Anyone 14 and under can get married with a judge's approval.
Evans’ bill would require that marriages involving a 15- or 16-year-old receive a hearing before a judge to ensure the marriage is legitimate. Marriages involving minors ages 15 to 17 also would require parental approval.
The bill also would prohibit marriage licenses being issued to any couple in which one person is 21 or older and the other is under 17. Evans said the age for marriage should mirror Missouri’s law on the age of consent for sex. Currently, if someone 21 or older has intercourse with someone under 17, it is deemed statutory rape.
“These are young women being forced to marry someone who doesn't have their best interests at heart,” Evans said during the Senate committee hearing.
Evans noted that many child marriages in Missouri tend to happen in counties that have airports or that are on the border, as they’re easier to access for people traveling from other states to take advantage of Missouri’s lax law.
“It's hard to track these because a lot of our counties don't track by age,” Evans said. “You can tell in certain counties they don't track it.”
Evans, citing The Star’s series this week, said that most of the research on the issue has been done by the media. The Star’s report detailed how Missouri has become a destination for people seeking to take advantage of the law, and a review of marriage licenses found that some traveled up to 1,800 miles to Missouri, from states as far as Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Florida.
According to the fiscal note for the bill, officials from the Department of Health and Senior Services said that since 2014, 195 girls and 28 boys ages 15 or 16 were married in Missouri.
This is Evans’ second year sponsoring a version of the bill, and she said she first got the idea from conversations with U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner’s office and encouragement from House Speaker Pro Tem Elijah Haahr, a Springfield Republican who was chosen by his colleagues to take over as speaker of the Missouri House next year.
While Evans initially wanted to establish 17 as the minimum age for marriage, she said she received pushback from some representatives who said it should be the parents’ decision.
“Is it a good idea?” Evans said of 15-year-olds getting married. “No.”
The bill has already passed out of the House. If approved by the Senate committee, it could then make its way to the Senate floor.
Dianna Fine, co-chair of the National Council of Jewish Women St. Louis’ human trafficking committee, said Missouri’s current law is fueling the sex trafficking industry.
“It allows parents to 'marry off' their children to traffickers and others for a variety of reasons,” Fine said. “Mostly financial.”
Jennifer Carter Dochler, the public policy director for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, stressed that child-marriage also can intersect with issues of sexual assault and domestic violence.
“When our staff were initially discussing the legislation that was filed last year, many of us had examples of domestic violence victims we had worked with who were married at a young age,” Dochler said. “And although domestic violence can happen to anyone, we found those who were married younger or had multiple children had a lot more barriers.”
Samuel Lee, director of Campaign Life, also testified in support, and quoted from a journal article that looked at the lack of decision-making and educational opportunities child brides faced. The report also states that girls who are married early experience higher rates of intimate partner violence than their peers who are married after they turn 18.
“Girls who are married young and are subject to (intimate partner violence) experience higher rates of unintended pregnancy, induced abortion, pregnancy complications, low birth weight of children and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV,” Lee quoted from the article.
Witnesses also testified in support on behalf of Missouri Kids First and the National Association of Social Workers.