Married into years of misery as a 15-year-old child bride, Ashley Duncan of Steele, Missouri, couldn't be happier.
"I think that's like one of the greatest things that can happen," Duncan, now 24, said to the news that Missouri lawmakers on Friday passed a bill setting the state's minimum marriage age at 16, with the approval of one parent or guardian. Marriages for anyone 15 or younger would be prohibited. The bill now awaits the governor's signature.
Age 15 "is just way too young to get married," said Duncan, who was profiled in a recent Star series on Missouri's marriage law — the most lenient in the nation for 15-year-olds. The law allowed children even younger to marry, with a judge's approval.
"I'm overjoyed. I'm elated," said Missouri Rep. Jean Evans, a St. Louis County Republican, who first presented the bill. "Everyone agreed that child marriage was wrong. It was just a matter of coming up with an agreement that we could get behind and go forward with."
Last year Evans presented a similar bill that passed the House but died in the Senate. Evans said The Star's series, published in March, helped the bill succeed this session.
“The Kansas City Star did a great job of exposing this and I appreciate their efforts,” Evans said, “because I think that brought it to the attention of a lot of people throughout the state, including my colleagues.”
But activists against all child marriages, meaning anyone under age 18, note that the bill being sent to the governor is a poor excuse for child protection. The measure still leaves thousands of 16- and 17-year-olds open to the kind of abuse, poverty, helplessness, lack of education and exploitation that often accompany child marriage.
"Ugh. I keep hoping the bill in Missouri will just disappear," Fraidy Reiss, founder of the national anti-child marriage group Unchained at Last, said prior to the vote, "because it makes me want to vomit. . . . It actually saves and protects almost no one."
Reiss argues that far too many marriages of girls under age 18 are forced or coerced by parents or others. Once in a marriage, a minor has almost no ability to escape that marriage. In Missouri, for example, children under 18 cannot file for divorce without permission from a parent, who might be the one who forced them into marriage to begin with.
"I'm not sure why legislators are even showing up," Reiss said of the measure. "It's almost a waste of paper."
Evans maintains that the bill improves a situation that needed some correcting.
"I know there are a few people who are unhappy," she said. "There are a few people who wanted it to be a hard 18. Other people felt that if there is a pregnancy or an impending child, that there should be a way for those couples to marry. But, overall, we got a large amount of support in both the Senate and the House, and I'm excited for Missouri."
Married at age 15 herself, Missouri Rep. Holly Rehder, a Sikeston Republican whose marriage as a child bride did not last, said "I think this is an important change."
"I got married to get out of a difficult home life that I was in," Rehder said. "I've looked back many times and thought, 'Man, if I'd waited three years and gotten my high school degree, I would have been better prepared.' I had some pretty tough years. A lot of it was because I made that choice. I was dealing with a 15-year-old brain."
As The Star showed in its series, in Missouri, 15-year-olds could marry with the approving signature of just one parent, even if the other parent objected. In other states where marriages at 15 or younger remain legal, statutes generally require both parents' signatures, a judge's approval or proof of pregnancy.
The result, as The Star series showed, is that Missouri had become a destination wedding spot for 15-year-old child brides. More than 1,000 child brides married in Missouri between 1999 and 2015, with hundreds flowing in from neighboring states. Up to one-third of the girls were marrying men over 21, meaning their premarital sex constituted statutory rape.
Beyond outlawing marriages under age 16, the bill going to the governor also prohibits marriage between a minor and anyone 21 or older.
When Ashley Duncan married in 2009, she was a still a 15-year-old freshman in high school from the Bootheel's Pemiscot County. Pregnant by her then-18-year-old boyfriend, she told of how she climbed onto her school bus on a February afternoon, only to hear her aunt's voice from up the aisle.
“Ashley, come on, get off the bus,” she recalled Christy Cothran, her guardian, shouting. “You’re getting married today.”
Soon, she was standing in front of a pastor, feeling queasy.
"They wanted me to get married," said Duncan, now the mother of four and separated after a violent marriage. "I knew I shouldn’t have been making that decision that young. It was just something they told me that, like, I had to do or my child's father would go to jail."
When the pastor asked her if she took her boyfriend to be her lawfully wedded husband, her answer was hardly certain.
"I said, 'I guess,' " Ashley recalled.
Her sister, standing nearby, chided her, "You’re supposed to say, 'I do.' "
The bill's passage places Missouri among an ever increasing number of states adopting stricter child marriage laws.
Delaware this month became the first state in the nation to ban child marriage altogether, with no exceptions. New Jersey is expected to soon follow. In the last two years, Virginia and Texas outlawed marriages under age 18, unless the children have been legally emancipated. New York last year made 17 the minimum age. Kentucky, Florida, and multiple other states have been working to increase their age minimums.
The path to changing Missouri's minimum marriage age has been long and circuitous. Last year Evans presented a bill that would have set the age at 17. That bill passed the House but died because it never made it to the Senate floor in time for a vote.
This year, Evans tried again, presenting House Bill 1630, a compromise bill that made 15 the minimum marriage age and required a judge's approval for ages 15 and 16. That bill passed the House and had been awaiting a vote in the Senate this week.
Instead of taking the chance that it might again die from lack of time, she changed the bill in the House, increasing the minimum age to 16 and requiring only one parent's approval for ages 16 and 17. Evans' bill was added Wednesday as an amendment to a bill sponsored by Sen. Scott Sifton, D-St. Louis County. Sifton's bill was designed to remove the statutes of limitation on prosecutions involving child abuse and unlawful sexual offenses against children.
"It had been on the Senate calendar for two months. Why risk it?" Evans said.
The Senate passed the bill on Thursday 32 to 1. The House passed it Friday with a vote of 135 to 3.