At 15, bride had no dress or party. Ten years later, ‘I’m going to have my wedding’

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Missouri’s child brides

This state has the most lenient law in the nation for 15-year-old brides. Some may have even married their rapists.

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When Courtney Kelems got married at 15 in Missouri — out of love, not pregnancy, she wants you to know — her wedding included:

No cake. No wedding dress. No party.

“Not even a glass of tea!” Courtney joked.

Yet 10 years later, at age 25, the Arkansas mother of four young children declared of her husband, “I love him as much today as the day we got married.” Her plan this year is to renew their vows and throw a party with a cake, a special dress and all.

“I always wanted a wedding growing up,” she said. “Now I’m actually going to have my wedding.”

Is such happiness a recommendation for getting married at 15?

Hardly. Courtney was 13 when she met Justin. She was wed by her freshman year.

Facebook photos now show a smiling blond family of three boys and a girl — Lauren, 6, Jaxon, 4, Brantley, 3, and 1-year-old Brayden — playing on slides, smiling together at Christmas. Justin has steady work as a security guard.

It’s far different from the way she grew up, with a childhood marked by divorce and drug abuse. When Courtney’s mother announced one day it was time to move to another town, Courtney refused to leave her boyfriend. She moved in with Justin’s family.

“He actually proposed to me on the night of his graduation,” she said.

In their home state of Arkansas, 15-year-olds can’t marry unless they are pregnant and have a judge’s approval. So the couple wed in Missouri’s Dunklin County, where all she needed was her mother’s permission.

Then Courtney dropped out of school, which remains her biggest regret.

“I wanted to be with Justin all the time,” she said. “And I knew he wasn’t going to be in school, so I didn’t want to go.”

She looks back now and thinks she should have waited, and others should wait, too.

“Justin and I could have gotten married after I finished school,” she said. “Just because you’re pregnant, or because something goes wrong, doesn’t mean you have to get married.

“It’d be better to wait to see how things play out, to be with that person for a little while before you do.”

Courtney’s decision hit her hardest when, on Facebook, she saw friends from school posting their photos from graduation.

“I thought, ‘That should have been me there.’” Courtney said.

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler

Laws for 15-year-olds getting married vary widely across the nation. Here's a state-by-state breakdown.