Missouri should make a vow: Don’t be a destination for 15-year-old brides

Dylan, 17, and Sammy Knowles, 15, who were married last summer, spent some time together in January in Leavenworth County before Dylan left for the Navy.
Dylan, 17, and Sammy Knowles, 15, who were married last summer, spent some time together in January in Leavenworth County before Dylan left for the Navy. The Star

That Missouri has become nationally known as a destination wedding spot for child brides is a source of concern and outright embarrassment.

As Star reporter Eric Adler pointed out in his eye-opening series this week, Missouri is the easiest place in the nation for 15-year-olds to wed. That means that some young girls not even old enough to drive are faced with the most wrenching of decisions: Marry the oftentimes older men who impregnated them or see those men wind up behind bars for statutory rape no matter how “in love” the young girls believe they are.

More than 300 times between 1999 and 2015, a 15-year-old girl in Missouri married a man who was 21 or older. Some of those men were in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

All it took was a signature from one of the girl’s parents, even if the other parent objected.

It’s appalling. As Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of “Unchained at Last,” a national organization aimed at making 18 the minimum marrying age in every state, said, “The most important reason we need to end marriage before 18 is because it can so easily be forced.”

The good news: The Missouri General Assembly is working on reforms, and a bill that just passed the state House 95-50 is on its way to the Senate. The measure, sponsored by state Rep. Jean Evans, a St. Louis County Republican, wouldn’t go as far as Reiss and many others want, but it’s a positive step forward. The legislation could finally begin to change Missouri’s well-earned reputation as the place to go for teenagers wanting to get hitched.

Among other things, the bill would prohibit anyone from marrying under age 15. That’s significant, although we would urge the Senate to consider boosting the age to 16 or even 17. The House passed a bill last year with broad support that would have banned marriage for anyone under 17, but the Senate never voted on it.

A key statistic: Today, 17 states, including neighboring Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois, prohibit marriage of even 15-year-olds.

Under Evans’ bill, those who are 15 and 16 and wanting to marry would need approval from both a parent and a judge.

For 17-year-olds, approval from one parent would still be needed. Finally, the law would take the key step of prohibiting anyone 21 or older from marrying those 16 or younger. The provision would end “the creepy old guy that’s knocked up some young girl” factor now muddying Missouri’s reputation, Evans said.

She points out that changing the law will help in combating human trafficking. Some parents have been known to force their young daughters into marriages so that they can then turn around and traffic them. Her legislation is yet another step in halting the practice.

This year’s bill is seen as something of a compromise to accommodate families with strong religious views who insist that babies come into the world to a couple in wedlock.

Here’s hoping the Missouri Senate will consider the issue important enough to finally act this year. The future of the young brides themselves is on the line. Statistics show that children who marry young have a far greater chance of divorce, and their education suffers as they focus on their own children.

The reputation of the state is also worth considering. Right now, we look like a bunch of hillbillies.

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