In Virginia, the minimum marriage age was recently raised to 18, a change meant to protect children from being forced into wedlock. Similar legislation has been introduced in Maryland, New Jersey, and New York.
But in Massachusetts, there is no minimum age to get married, as long as minors receive judicial approval. Minors don’t need a lawyer, and the petition is only half a page. Parental approval is required, although with several exceptions.
Between 2010 and 2014, almost 200 children were married in Massachusetts, according to the latest available records from the state’s Department of Public Health. Judges approved 92 percent of marriage petitions from minors over that span, probate court records show.
More than 85 percent of the children were girls, who often married significantly older men. Two 17-year-old girls, for instance, married 39-year-old men, records show. Two 15-year-old girls also received approval to marry men in their mid-twenties.
Child marriage is typically associated with developing countries, but children’s advocates say the practice is more widespread in the United States than many realize.
“Unfortunately, it does not shock me,” said Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained At Last, a New Jersey-based group that seeks to end child marriage in the United States. “Overwhelmingly, these are minor girls marrying adult men, and often there’s a significant difference in their ages. Especially in states where there is no minimum age, we’re seeing shocking instances of children as young as 12 getting married.”
Statistics on child marriage are difficult to obtain. The Department of Public Health provided only limited information several months after a public records request and multiple appeals to the secretary of state’s office.
Marriage petitions are not publicly available to protect minors’ privacy.
The children who were married lived in nearly 70 communities, but about 25 percent were from either Springfield or Worcester, cities with large immigrant populations.
State Representative Kay Khan, a Newton Democrat and chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, said she was shocked to learn how many children were married in recent years, and couldn’t imagine why a judge would approve it.
“It’s disturbing. I can’t think of a good reason, myself, why any family would want to put their child through that,” Khan said. “If they’re coerced, it’s a form of child abuse, really. I can’t imagine a judge giving that OK.”
Khan said she would consider filing legislation to prohibit child marriage.
Children’s advocates say it is often difficult to determine whether teenagers are getting married of their own volition or being coerced by their family. If they are being pressured, the marriage winds up legitimizing what would otherwise be considered rape, advocates say.
The legal age of consent in Massachusetts is 16, but that does not apply to married couples.
“Incredibly, the state’s minimum marriage age laws enable someone who would otherwise land on a sex offender registry, instead to head for a gift registry,” said Jeanne Smoot, senior counsel for Policy and Strategy for the Tahirih Justice Center, a Virginia-based group that works to protect immigrant girls and women.
The Tahirih Justice Center lobbied for the recent change in Virginia, where nearly 4,500 children were married from 2004 to 2013, according to the group. About 90 percent of the underage spouses were girls, some as young as 13.
Advocates say child marriage is harmful in a variety of ways. Children who marry are less likely to finish high school and far less likely to complete college, and as a result have more limited career opportunities. They are at greater risk of being subjected to violence, and are more likely to have mental health problems, studies have shown.
Massachusetts requires parental permission, but provides several exceptions, and advocates say the provision offers little reassurance that the child’s wishes are respected.
“Massachusetts has relied on another dangerous assumption, which is parental consent should be sufficient reassurance that the young person’s interests are being served,” Smoot said. “Parental consent can conceal parental coercion.”
Reiss grew up in a strictly Orthodox Jewish family in New York City and at 19 was forced by her family into an arranged marriage to a man she barely knew. He abused her, and prevented her from using birth control, she said.
“Pretty soon, I had two daughters and I wasn’t allowed to have a job or bank account or credit cards.”
After 12 years of marriage, Reiss decided to attend college. After graduating, she got a job, filed for divorce and left with her two daughters. Her family and community shunned her and even today consider her dead.
Children who get married cannot easily escape dangerous or unhealthy relationships, she said. In some states, minors may lack the legal standing to initiate divorce.
“These children are playing in an adult field where they’re not equipped to play,” Reiss said. “If they’re married to an adult, think of that huge imbalance of power. They don’t have equal resources.”