JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – About a year and a half ago, St. Louis’ KMOV aired an investigative report about teen marriages in Missouri.
Lauren Trager’s report details 15-year-old girl’s story of being brought to Kansas from Idaho by her father to marry her rapist and a 50-year-old man from Arizona marrying a 15-year-old girl he had been abusing. And it all was legal in Missouri.
It just so happened that now-Rep. Jean Evans saw the report and it peaked her interest. She started looking into the marriage laws in Missouri and saw an issue: the state had no minimum age for marriage.
Entering into the 2017 regular session as a freshman lawmaker, Evans tried to fix that.
“This was the very first bill I filed,” Evans said. The bill was approved by the Missouri House of Representatives and passed two Senate committees but never made it to the Senate floor.
Now it is back again. So far, the legislation has passed the Children and Families committee unanimously and was referred to the Rules-Legislative Oversight committee.
“What this bill does is basically make it illegal to get married if you are under the age of 15 or if someone is over the age of 21 and the person they want to marry is under the age of 18 that would also be illegal,” Evans said. The bill would also require minors over the age of 15 to obtain parental and judicial approval.
“We are protecting children from those who would do them harm,” Evans said. After Evans originally filed the bill, she would get calls with “horror stories.”
According to a Frontline, a PBS show, investigation more than 207,000 minors in America were married between 2000 and 2015. In the KMOV report that aired in July 2016, it was stated that 800 16- and 17-year-olds, and 100 15-year-olds had wed since 2012 in Missouri. However, tracking down accurate figures is difficult because marriage licenses are not tracked by ages.
“We have to recognize there are predators out there,” Evans said. “You can’t be a predator and marry a young girl.”
Eighteen years old is the recognized age of adulthood in American. Which means that in an abusive marital situation, a minor can’t go to a shelter for protection. Those married as minors are three times more likely to be abused than those who marry as adults, according to The Economist, which leaves them with very limited options.
Other statistics for child marriages are not favorable. The Economist cites 70 to 80 percent of child marriages end in divorce and those that marry as children are twice as likely to live in poverty and are more likely to drop out of high school. They are also a higher risk of diabetes, cancer, stroke and are more likely to suffer from mental-health problems.
“We have to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves,” Evans said.
She is a pro-life advocate who firmly believes in protecting the most vulnerable and that being pro-life doesn’t end.
“When we find out people are bringing children here to marry their abuser, we as legislators have to look at why,” Evans said. “And then we have to fix it.”
While the setting a minimum age for marriage has garnered bipartisan support there has been some objections raised.
One concern was that this is taking away parental rights, to which Evans responds, “Sometimes they need to be taken away. That’s why we have a foster care system.”
In the Children and Families public hearing a representative from Missouri Kids First said that “parental consent doesn’t always mean safety” and another witness said that “when parents aren’t doing the right thing, the state has to say no.”
Alisha Shurr is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine. She joined the Missouri Times in January 2018 after working as a copy editor for her hometown newspaper in Southern Oregon. Alisha is a graduate of Kansas State University. Contact Alisha at firstname.lastname@example.org.