University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Child Brides? North Carolina has a problem
By Ramishah Maruf
Donna Pollard, like so many from her small Kentucky town, was to be wed in the courthouse.
It was the height of ‘90s grunge culture, so they arrived at the Pigeon Forge courthouse dressed in all-black — a leather jacket for him, a black blouse for her. Surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains, chain restaurants and Victorian homes, it was as close to a destination wedding as they could get.
They met when Pollard was 14, when he was a technician at a behavioral facility in southern Indiana and Pollard was a patient.
The relationship began innocently — slipping love notes and poetry through hallways, winks across the room. Her husband-to-be looked so much like Tom Petty with his blonde hair and blue eyes. Even her mother approved.
Two years later, they got married in Pigeon Forge. She was 16; he was 31.
For two years, the relationship seemed so right. It made sense for marriage to be next, especially in her family — her mother was a child bride, and so were generations of women before that. That didn’t last long.
In North Carolina, a 14-year-old can get married with parental consent, which, with Alaska, is the lowest age of consent in the United States. And a new study shows marriages like Pollard’s are still occurring.
Registers of Deeds throughout the state have found that North Carolina has become a safe haven for predators to marry minors, in marriages similar to what Pollard says hers was.
Now, there’s a team of government officials and advocates taking this issue to the General Assembly.
Their goal? To raise the minimum age to marry in the state to 18.
Leading the fight to end child marriages in North Carolina is a 37-year-old in Asheville, the Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of people who are getting married young, who are doing it with good intentions,” Reisinger said. “But what we’ve come to realize is that there are a lot of people who feel like they got forced to marry their rapist.”
Reisinger and the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) compiled enough quantitative data to prove what Reisinger has already known — North Carolina has a child marriage problem.
“I’ve been in office for just shy of a decade now,” Reisinger said, “and year after year, it seems like this is still happening.”
Last year, Georgia raised its minimum age to marry to 17 and also prevented minors from marrying adults more than 4 years older than them. In 2018, Kentucky, which has one of the highest child marriage rates in the country, banned marriage under the age of 16. Virginia set the minimum age to marry at 18 and Tennessee to 17.
In North Carolina, children who are 14 and 15 can go through the judicial process and marry due to a “pregnancy exception,” in which one person is pregnant or has become a parent. Sixteen and 17-year-olds have no protection measures.
There are no restrictions in North Carolina for the age difference between the couple — which Reisinger said is essentially a loophole for statutory rape.
The study found that 30% of marriages involving a child younger than 15 had an age difference of more than 4 or 5 years. That means outside of marriage, sex between the two would be considered a Class C Felony.
Year after year Reisinger sees the same couples coming into his office — a young woman with a man much older than her.
“We’ve become essentially this sanctuary state for child marriage which is awful, we’ve come to this destination that we don’t want to be,” Reisinger said.
Signing off on marriages is one of the more joyous parts of the job. But when Reisinger is signing off underage girls to predators, even after trying to reason with the parties, it leaves him sick.
Reisinger still thinks about the 17-year-old girl from Kentucky who arrived with her 49-year-old boyfriend.
The red flags were immediate.
“Can I speak to her alone?” Reisinger asked.
He pulls her aside into the hallway. Reisinger goes down the list of questions, as he had for so many young girls before.
“Have you ever worked a job before?”
The girl shakes her head. She had not.
“Have you graduated from high school?”
She had not.
“Do you see a power dynamic taking place?”
She had not, and neither did her mother.
It’s hard for Reisinger to tell whether the teenagers are nervous or being forced into a marriage. It might’ve been the lack of eye contact, or it might’ve been the quiet demeanor, but something still felt off.
“Who’s got the kid’s interest at heart here?” Reisinger says to himself every time.
Reisinger signed off on the license. Before the sun set that day, the girl was married to a man old enough to be her father.
For Jeff Thigpen, the Register of Deeds in Guilford County, raising the minimum marriage age to 18 isn’t enough.
“No matter how you cut it, this is really messy,” Thigpen said. “We can’t just say ‘let’s change the law’ and believe that is going to change the life and condition of teenagers and kids who would be at our doorstep asking for a marriage license.”
In urban Guilford County, Thigpen has seen almost 200 marriages of minors over the past decade. Most of the couples were Southeast Asian or Central American and Mexican immigrants, some of whom may be undocumented and looking for legal protection through marriage.
Thigpen believes there needs to be a statewide and local task force with every major institution — starting from the school system to religious communities to state level policy makers — to find out why young people are getting married in the first place.
He said the legislature passing a minimum marriage age is an easy out. There are still going to be teenagers looking to get married due to situations out of their control, where pregnancies may be involved.
“Our legislature is notorious for passing bad laws without thought,” Thigpen said.
N.C. State Rep. Graig Meyer said his colleagues plan to introduce a bill at the beginning of the General Assembly session in January to raise the minimum age to marry. It will need a bipartisan coalition, which he does not think will be difficult.
Outgoing McDowell County Register of Deeds Tonia Hampton has seen it all in her small office in Marion.
The young Hispanic boy marrying a 78-year-old man, who said he was making money from the marriage. The crying 16-year-old marrying an incarcerated man twice her age, whose mother was so ecstatic Hampton thought the mother wanted to marry him instead.
“I was just appalled, but what do you do?” Hampton said. “I just felt like if I had some options to say no, I may have prevented them a lot of heartache.”
It’s personal to Hampton. She’s the daughter of a 15-year-old bride, the granddaughter of a bride who was even younger, 14.
McDowell County has a population of less than 50,000, tucked away in the Southern Appalachians. Child marriage, like for many across the state, isn’t discussed or seen on a daily basis.
“We live in the Bible Belt, and I feel like people still believe that choices about children can still be made,” Hampton said.
The victims live in the shadows. ICRW studies show that child brides face increased rates of poverty, domestic violence and early pregnancy.
For Pollard, the bride in Pigeon Forge, the violence began soon after the wedding. The first time, he choked her. It did not take long for violence to become a habit — he shoved Pollard into walls and pinned her to the ground until she thought she was going to die.
Just like her childhood, she had to remind herself that in a few minutes, it would be over. Except the violence went from her mother chasing her around the house with a belt to her husband — since her birth, she was a sponge for someone else’s rage.
Pollard dropped out of high school. The birth of her daughter followed soon after, at a time when she should have been packing to go to college.
Pollard tried to escape her abusive marriage, over the Ohio River and to a domestic violence shelter in Louisville. She wasn’t even old enough to drive with a license.
But the shelter wouldn’t take her in. Minors were too much of a responsibility, they said. The operators of an apartment complex she had tried to rent said the same thing.
Twenty years later, Pollard is the founder of Survivor’s Corner, an advocacy group for survivors of different traumas. She is fighting to end child marriage in North Carolina.
In 2018, she helped spearhead the effort to change the marriage law in Kentucky, raising the minimum age to 17. It was passed in one legislative session.
Pollard and other advocates are chipping away state by state. In North Carolina, she is working with people like Drew Reisinger to raise the age.
She hopes that states will raise the age to 18, or at the very least, prevent children from marrying pedophiles.
“When I realized, oh my gosh, it’s not even that I’m not alone, there are 10,000 others like me,” Pollard said. “That’s when I really realized that everything that I went through was really part of my destiny to make sure that no other child would have to go through the things that I did.”
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