North Carolina is youngster bride vacation spot; invoice might finish it

RALEIGH, NC (AP) – Known for its coastlines, mountains, and “first to fly” state, North Carolina has also earned a dubious reputation lately as a local destination for adults planning to marry children.

State lawmakers are about to pass a bill that could dampen the state’s appeal as a go-to place for child brides – but still wouldn’t have a national push to raise the age to 18. The proposed law would raise the minimum marriage age from 14 to 16 years and limit the age difference between a 16-year-old and his spouse to four years.

“We’ll have moved the needle and stopped North Carolina at the bottom of the state barrel,” said Drew Reisinger, the Buncombe County’s registry of deeds. But, he said, “we will still put a lot of children at risk.”

Reisinger said the county, which also includes the popular tourist town of Asheville, is a destination for many adult and child brides from nearby states like Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee, all of whom have raised the minimum age at marriage in recent years.

Two-thirds of Buncombe County’s marriage proposals last year were from non-residents trying to marry a minor, Reisinger said, noting that a 49-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl recently came from Kentucky to apply for a license .

“North Carolina is one of the friendliest states in the south that gives them a safe haven,” he noted.

According to Unchained at Last, a nonprofit working to end child and forced marriages in the United States, the state is currently one of 13 states where children under the age of 16 can marry through jurisdiction or a judge’s judgment.

Under current North Carolina law, children aged 14 can marry if they become pregnant and a judge allows them. Otherwise, children aged 16 and over can marry with their parents’ permission. Alaska is the only other state whose law specifically allows marriages over the age of 14.

A study by the International Center for Research on Women, a research institute and rights group for women and children, estimates that between 2000 and 2015, North Carolina had nearly 8,800 minors listed on marriage licenses – placing the state in the top 5 with child marriages during that time Period. The group stated that 93% of the marriage proposals they examined for the years 2000-2019 involved a marriage between a minor and an adult.

“It disturbs the idea that a child marriage is the Romeo and Juliet scenario of two 17-year-olds who can’t wait to make love,” said Lyric Thompson, one of the study’s co-authors .

But change has been slow in North Carolina, where some lawmakers are still convinced that certain marriages involving a child are still acceptable.

“It’s a generation gap,” said Senator Vickie Sawyer, a Republican from Davidson County. “It was older members – both Democrats and Republicans – who had these personal stories from family members who were married, and it turned out to be fine.”

Sawyer sponsored a bill that would have raised the age to 18. Instead, a compromise measure, which received unanimous support in May and in the House of Representatives this week, would raise the minimum age at marriage to 16 with no exceptions, including pregnancy. And even those 16 or 17 need parental permission or a judge’s decision that the marriage “serves the best interests of an underage party”.

Cabarrus County Rep. Kristin Baker, who helped get the bill through the House, stated, “As a Conservative Christian, I am a strong advocate of the sacrament of marriage.”

“As a child psychiatrist, I am determined to protect our vulnerable youth and improve their chances for a healthy, happy future,” she said. “I believe this law serves to achieve these goals.”

The proposed maximum age difference of four years partially mimics statutory rape laws that make it a serious crime for minors to have sexual intercourse with a significantly older person. The bill still needs one more Senate vote before it probably goes to Democratic Governor Roy Cooper’s desk this week, where it is likely to be signed.

Unchained at Last and the International Center for Research on Women are among the groups urging states to raise the age of marriage to 18 without exception. Six states have achieved this standard – most recently New York last month.

The groups have enlisted the help of former child brides, including Judy Wiegand of Kentucky, who appeared before a North Carolina House committee in June to encourage lawmakers to change the law.

“It is the government’s responsibility to protect all children,” Wiegand told lawmakers. Wiegand was 13 when she and an older teenager – her baby’s father – married in the 1970s. She said the law left her largely unprotected from an abusive spouse until she grew up.

Lobbyists working on a law change say former North Carolina child brides who have contacted them are too traumatized by their experiences to speak publicly in front of lawmakers. Instead, women like Wiegand have promised: “I speak for the law because I have the feeling that nobody did it for me,” she said.

Another woman willing to speak up is Jean Fields, who married a man in his twenties in 1965 at the age of 15. Fields had three children when she was 21. She eventually divorced after years of abuse and abuse from her husband.

Fields, now 72, has a different married name, but does not want to reveal it to spare her extended family fear. In a telephone interview, she said that after she left her marriage, she raised her children, returned to school and has since owned two businesses. However, despite her ultimate success, she advises others not to marry young.

“I am sorry I never had the opportunity to be a teenager,” she said.

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