Missouri

How we found our stories of child marriage

Behind The Star’s child brides series (Deep Background podcast clip)

Hundreds of young couples come to Missouri to marry. Why? Reporter Eric Adler discusses his series on Missouri's child brides in this Deep Background clip.
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Hundreds of young couples come to Missouri to marry. Why? Reporter Eric Adler discusses his series on Missouri's child brides in this Deep Background clip.

More from the series


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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The two prime pillars of journalism are trust and truth. We are grateful to all those in this series who trusted us with the truth of their stories.

That would be people like Brittany Koerselman, 19, a divorced single mom of a 3-year-old son who was living in northern Iowa when she received an odd message from a stranger on Facebook.

Hi Brittany, you don’t know me. My name is Eric Adler. I’m a reporter at The Kansas City Star in K.C., Missouri. I was hoping you could help me out. I’m doing a story on young brides and I was going through marriage licenses in Platte City. …

They also include Ashley Duncan, 24, from Steele, Mo.

It was a cold December night when her cellphone rang. It was her sister calling from her job at the Dollar General, telling her about some old guy: He says he’s a news reporter from Kansas City. He’s driven 450 miles down to the Bootheel with a photographer. They’re doing a story on 15-year-old brides. They found your marriage certificate at the courthouse and want to talk to you.

Ashley came down and, over an emotional two hours, was brave enough to share the truth of her life.

It may be obvious to state that all news stories hinge on honestly portraying the experience of the real people affected. But it’s also true.

What reporters think and feel matters not one whit. It is others’ stories we’re telling. Without people like them, this series would have been nothing more than numbers.

The data certainly provided direction.

This series began with an open records request to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. We asked for a county-by-county breakdown of all marriages by age, including 15 and under, going back to 1999.

In the weeks it took for the data to arrive, we reviewed every state’s child marriage laws, which revealed that the Show Me State had the most lenient law in the nation regarding the marriage of 15-year-olds.

Meantime, we looked for child brides (and grooms) by searching tens of thousands of marriage licenses, nearly 20 years’ worth, in multiple Missouri counties by pulling up to computers inside courthouses and clicking through each license. We gathered names and began searching Facebook, phone directories and Instagram accounts. We sent out letters by post and email and also contacted relatives and friends.

Hi, you don’t know me, but…

Many inquiries were rejected or met with silence. But Brittany answered. After her came Samantha and Dylan Knowles of Leavenworth, Kan. Yes, they, too, would share their tale of life as a teen married couple.

When the state data arrived, it clearly showed that the Missouri counties bordering other states had recorded the highest numbers of marriages of 15-year-olds. Pemiscot and Dunklin counties, down in the Bootheel, had the highest rate per capita. We drove down there to search thousands of additional licenses, which quickly revealed that more than half of the 15-year-olds married in those counties were coming from other states, just as they had in the Kansas City region.

A few parents talked; most didn’t. Experts, critics, more data crunching helped provide perspective.

Ashley’s and Brittany’s stories led us to review the statutory rape laws in every state.

Shane and Christy Stracener gave us less than an hour, standing outside their home. But in that short time, they offered a nuanced counterpoint to the most common national narrative of child marriages being forced unions that end in sadness.

Haylee Salas from Senath, Mo., and Courtney Kelems from Arkansas shared their stories that mixed love with regret in lengthy telephone interviews.

Was child marriage hard? Did they feel forced into it? Should it be curbed or outlawed? Would they recommend it?

All answered countless and often intimate questions in their own voices, telling us — and trusting us to understand — that the truth is always complicated.

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler

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