By Hannah Critchfield
The couple entered Drew Reisinger’s Asheville office after a three-hour journey across two state lines.
He was 49, and she had just turned 17. They had traveled to North Carolina from Kentucky for the more permissible state marriage laws, they said.
It was 2019, a year after the state of Kentucky passed a law prohibiting marriage to anyone under the age of 18 without a court order. The couple wanted Reisinger, the Buncombe County Registry of Deeds, to issue a permit for their marriage in Tar Heel state instead.
Reisinger took the girl aside to ask her questions in private – she had celebrated her 17th birthday less than a month earlier, was still living with her mother, who homeschooled her, and had no work experience. She still said she wanted to marry this man who was her boyfriend. Reisinger quickly googled Kentucky laws – as of 2018, the man’s relationship with her, if at all sexual, would have been a felony.
“It felt great for me to put my stamp on it – I told them they were welcome to come back once she turned 18. I refused a marriage certificate, which could have legal ramifications for me,” he said. ‘They just went to the next county, got their marriage certificate, no questions were asked, and a civil magistrate in that county married them that day. They returned to the state of Kentucky as a married couple. “*
New bipartisan accounts try to keep Reisinger or one of his colleagues out of a similar situation. House Bill 41 and a companion, Senate Bill 35 set the minimum age for marriage in North Carolina at 18 years old.
The state currently allows minors as young as 14 to marry, tying them to Alaska for the lowest legal age of marriage in the United States.
“When I picked up the general statute and read what the age of marriage was, it was really shocking because I have a 14-year-old daughter,” said Senator Vicki Sawyer (R-Mooresville), one of the bill’s sponsors. in the Senate. “I just felt like I should rethink this idea of when and at what age a girl should get married.”
Adults who marry children
There is no state body that tracks child marriage in North Carolina, one of only six states that does not publicly provide this information. These data are processed at the hyper-local level by the district register of deeds. But evidence suggests that North Carolina may have the fourth highest number of marriages to a minor in the country.
Existing data does not include figures for the counties of Wake or Mecklenburg, the state’s largest and most urban counties.
In August last year, the International Center for Women’s Research, in collaboration with Reisinger, released a report based on data from half of the 100 local registers of deed offices in the state. Between 2000 and 2019, these provincial officials reported 3,949 marriage license applications involving minors.
About 93 percent of these marriage applications involved an adult who wanted to marry a minor – not a union of two minors.
“It definitely corrects the kind of hoped-for Romeo and Juliet myth that these are just a few kids who didn’t want to wait,” said Lyric Thompson, senior director of policy and advocacy at ICRW.
Of these requests, 241 related to someone who was at least 10 years older than the minor – and 26 to someone who was at least 20 years older.
The report and the researchers involved did not specify the number of requests between an 18-year-old – that is, a person who had only recently come of age – and a legal minor.
Based on the findings, researchers then extrapolated, based on population size, an estimated number of marriage licenses filed in the remaining 50 counties, for an estimated total of 9,127 marriage license applications with a child in North Carolina during this time.
However, the Tar Heel state is more restrictive when it comes to marriages to minors than a number of other states, which have no age limit at all.
Create a loophole?
Currently, children aged 16 or older require a parent’s signed consent to be married in the state.
Children aged 14 or 15 can marry in the event of a pregnancy – known as the “pregnancy exception” – but must be reviewed by the court to issue the marriage license.
In these cases, a guardian ad litem is appointed to determine whether the marriage is in the best interests of the child, under state law, with the aim of establishing that the child has not undergone exploitation or coercion.
“It’s happening pretty much everywhere, in eastern, western and central North Carolina,” Thompson said. “What we see from evidence elsewhere is that there is virtually no difference in terms of countryside, city, race or religion – only education level is associated with later marriage – if you don’t have alternatives, it doesn’t matter where you live.
“Pregnancy is a very motivating factor in the United States, with standards and expectations surrounding, ‘Wouldn’t it make sense that she would be better off if she was married?’” She added.
Critics of the existing state law argue that it creates a loophole that allows abusers to bypass legal rape charges for having sex with children while they are still too young to get a driver’s license.
“I think there is hope that this problem would just go away,” said Reisinger. “But North Carolina is one of the reasons it’s not going away, because we’re essentially the place in the South where people get married to their underage girlfriends.”
In North Carolina, an adult who has sex with a minor several years younger is considered a felony. But a pregnancy-related marriage exception legalizes these relationships, proponents say.
More than half – 57 percent – of these marriages in existing North Carolina data involved pregnancies resulting from a sexual relationship that could have been prosecuted as a felony under state rape laws, meaning the adult was considerably older than the young teenager.
In one case, a pregnant 15-year-old married an adult who was 29, data from the local county shows.
Increase the age
“I think a lot of people are trying to figure out: If a 17-year-old gets a 16-year-old pregnant and they want to get married, how do we get it to work out, and how can we prevent the predators that use North Carolina as a place to justify their predation on young girls? ”said Rep. Ashton Wheeler Clemmons (D-Greensboro), one of the home account sponsors. “I think well-meaning people can support one and be shocked by the other.”
But Wheeler Clemmons said many people are “shocked” to learn that 14-year-olds can legally marry in North Carolina.
“When I tell people I’m working on an account about that, they say, you’re kidding,” she said.
Research shows that teenage marriage is associated with long-term health outcomes, including poverty in adulthood.
These differences disproportionately affect girls, as national and international research shows that marriages between a minor and an adult often involve a female child marrying an older man.
Girls who marry as teenagers are 50 percent less likely to finish high school than their unmarried peers, according to US Census data, and four times less likely to complete college in the future. Women who marry before the age of 16 and do not finish high school are about 30 percent more likely to live below the poverty line as adults, compared to 11 percent for women generally who do not finish high school.
Child marriage is associated with higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases, cervical cancer, divorce, unwanted pregnancy, death in childbirth and malnutrition in infants. In addition, girls who marry at the age of 18 or younger are at greater risk for diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes. They are also almost twice as likely to develop major depressive disorder as girls who do not marry before this age.
‘A destination site for child marriage’
In the past five years, contiguous states of Virginia, Kentucky, and Georgia have all raised the age at which a person can legally marry to 18. In 2018, Tennessee passed a new law prohibiting children under 17 from marrying, and prohibiting marriage between a person . 17 years old and someone four or more years older than her.
Local records of deeds, which review marriage license applications, say North Carolina may become a child marriage destination site due to its lower age restrictions.
In Buncombe County, for example, the number of applications for marriages involving a minor is generally declining. But the percentage of those requests submitted by non-state applicants has skyrocketed since 2015.
The percentage of underage marriage requests filed in Buncombe County from foreign applicants, as of August 2020. Courtesy: Drew Reisinger
“North Carolina is one of the easiest states in the country to get a marriage license, which is great for many purposes, but not necessarily for child brides,” Reisinger said. “We have seen this massive increase in foreign applicants coming to Buncombe County because their state laws do not allow them to marry their underage girlfriends.”
North Carolina has allowed people to marry as young as 14 years old since 2001. Before that, the state allowed children aged 12 and older to marry under certain conditions.
Probability of death
Sponsors of the bills recognize that some of the language will have to change to pass into law.
“In all fairness, we have members in the House and Senate whose parents were married at the age of 15 or 14,” Sawyer said. “So they’re not really keen on the idea of banishing marriage altogether.”
The Republican senator said lawmakers are working on compromises in House and Senate legislation that address age differences between children who want to get married and their partners.
“What we’re trying to do, however, is focus on the 90 percent of child marriage cases where a young woman is with someone much older,” she said. “I don’t want to forbid a 16 and 17 year old from trying to make a home for their child when they get pregnant. But then again, that’s a very small part of the bigger picture of kids getting married. “
With compromise language, two-pronged supporters hope that one of the proposed bills will move forward next week, Sawyer and Clemmons said.
If passed, the law would immediately apply to pending and future marriage licenses.
* NC Health News was able to confirm this account by reviewing the couple’s marriage license application, obtained through a freedom of information request.