Marriage is deeply personal and yet entirely public -that has advocates and lawmakers wondering if it’s time to wedge new ideas into the age-old practice. Specifically, they’re looking to change laws that allow children to get married.
About 5,300 minors got married between 1995 and 2015, according to data collected from localities and published by the Maryland Department of Health.
The WUSA9 Special Assignment Unit interviewed three people who show what happens when teens get married.
Brittany Miller knows the hardship of keeping a teen marriage together. After learning she was pregnant with her first child, Emily, Miller and her husband married on her 17th birthday. Her husband was 18-years-old.
“We began to argue a lot and it seemed like we didn't know each other anymore,” Miller said.
Two years later, she and her husband are getting divorced.
“Marriage wasn't ready for us,” Miller said.
Miller is now raising 22-month-old Emily and her two-month-old son Emmanuel alone in a homeless prevention center in Annapolis.
“We were two children experiencing life,” Miller said. “Getting just a taste of just a little bit of bitter fruit.”
Miller’s marriage was an obstacle she’s still struggling to overcome.
"It would have been better if I had stood up for myself and said 'No, maybe we should wait and see how this goes,' Miller said.
Mr. and Mrs. Gossard
Sharon and Doulgas Gossard have a very different story. The couple, now living in Damascus, treasure the moment they married as teens.
“Well I proposed what three or four times,” Douglas said.
“I think I was 14 when he first proposed and I was like ‘No way,’” Sharon said.
Douglas’ persistence paid off when they married during a blizzard in February 1952. Sharon was 16-years-old on their wedding day. Douglas was 18-years-old.
Five children, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren later, it’s clear life hasn’t cracked their bond.
“I think it’s just worked because we love each other,” Sharon said.
Miller and her husband, and Sharon and Douglas Gossard, were close in age on their wedding days. That’s not always the case.
Teen Marriage in Maryland
MDH data shows in 1999, a 15-year-old girl married a man who was at least 40-years-old. In 2007, a 17-year-old girl married a man who was at least 45 years old. In 2009, a girl under 15 years old married a man who was 27 years old. And in 2015, a teenager who was under 18 years old married someone who was at least 45 years old.
In a 20-year period, 185 teens married people who were at least 30-years-old or older.
Maryland’s marriage law allows teens 15-years-old to get married with consent of a parent or guardian if there is a pregnancy involved.
Teens who are 16 years old or 17 years old need a parent’s or guardian’s consent, or prove a pregnancy.
Virginia - A minor can get married if he or she has been emancipated by a court order.
D.C. - Teenagers 16 years old can get married if a parent or guardian says it’s okay.
If you thought child rape laws are supposed to prevent relationships like these, you’re not entirely wrong.
It’s a crime in Maryland for an adult who is more than four years older than a 14-year-old or 15-year-old to have sex with that teenager. However, Maryland’s spousal defense laws would likely shield the adult in the marriage from facing charges.
Maryland’s age of consent is 16-years-old, unless the relationship involves a minor student and a teacher at the same school.
An organization that tracks child marriage laws said no state has an all-out ban.
So, are these relationships true love? Or, an attempt to cover-up criminal behavior?
“You don’t want to be part of a process where somebody is taking advantage of the law but you have to follow the letter of the law because you’re sworn to carry out the law,” said Anne Arundel Circuit Court Clerk, Robert Duckworth. “So that’s troublesome.”
When asked whether he worries that’s what he’s doing Duckworth said, “I have at times.”
Duckworth said change isn’t up to him, it’s up to lawmakers like Delegate Venessa Atterbeary (D-Howard County) and State Senator Will Smith (D-Montgomery County).
“You know I’m 35,” Smith said. “When you think about somebody 35 potentially marrying somebody that’s 15, it’s a little disturbing, yes.”
Both Smith and Atterbeary brought bills during the 2017 legislative session to raise Maryland’s marriage age to 18 years old.
Advocate Jeanne Smoot of the Tahirih Justice Center was by their side.
“Early marriage is harmful for girls,” Smoot said. “It results in high divorce rates, high dropout rates from school, medical and mental health problems, greater vulnerability to domestic violence, and long-term poverty.”
Is 17 too young to get married? How about 16 or 15? It's legal in our area for this to happen. Find out why @ 11. pic.twitter.com/9RmVRuZF8H— WUSA9 (@wusa9) October 31, 2017
A 2011 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics indicated child marriage is associated with, but doesn’t necessarily cause, an increase in psychiatric disorders.
Smoot worries at least some of these marriages are coerced, and said raising the age would mean no one could force a child into marriage.
“What we know and what clenches our stomachs is that sense of just how dis-empowered many minors are who want to avoid a marriage,” Smoot said.
Michelle Siri is a women’s rights lawyer for the Women’s Law Center of Maryland and testified against the proposals. She declined WUSA9’s request for an interview, but pointed us to her oral testimony.
“Where we disagree really are the roots of the problem,” Siri said of the bill’s proponents. “I think child marriage is actually the red herring here and it’s forced marriage is really the problem.”
Siri said she would support efforts toward forced marriage, but wondered if banning all child marriage was too stringent.
“We can’t mandate maturity,” she said. “We should prevent forced marriage but not at the expense of the autonomy of women in our state.”
Atterbeary’s and Smith’s bills failed. Atterbeary says bills will come back next session.