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Bills Would Raise Minimum NC Marrying Age To 18

North Carolina is tied with Alaska for having the lowest age required for marriage. New legislation would change that.

A pair of bills in the General Assembly would make it illegal for anyone under the age of 18 in North Carolina to get married. Right now, 16- and-17-year-olds can marry if they have their parents’ consent. Fourteen- and 15-year-olds can get married if the bride is pregnant or has given birth and a judge signs off on the marriage.

North Carolina is one of only two states that allows kids as young as 14 to get married. The other is Alaska.

Drew Reisinger is the register of deeds in Buncombe County in western North Carolina. He has issued marriage licenses to dozens of young girls and is a vocal critic of the state law.

“You feel totally helpless,” Reisinger told WFAE. “You want to help children succeed in this life. You want to give them the best possible chances, and the fact that we are knowingly allowing specifically women and girls to enter into a life-long legal contract that will haunt them and put them at a severe disadvantage is devasting.”

The current law also raises a legal issue. The age of consent in North Carolina is 16. Reisinger says that because girls as young as 14 can get married if they’re pregnant, the law effectively sanctions sex that would otherwise be considered illegal.

“It’s kind of been the state turning a blind eye or allowing statutory rape to occur, and this is their get-out-of-jail-free card,” Reisinger said.

To get a sense of how often child marriages occur in North Carolina, we turn to Lyric Thompson with the International Center for Research on Women in Washington D.C. Thompson, who is based in Raleigh, co-authored a recent report on child marriages in the state.

Marshall Terry: How big of a problem is this in North Carolina?

Lyric Thompson: Well, from our research, it looks to be about top five in the nation. So, we don't have a complete picture for the country: The issue of child marriage, most Americans think doesn't happen here, which means we don't collect data and study it here. And not all states have publicly available data.

North Carolina was one of those states until our work, which collected marriage applications between the years of 2000 and 2019 across 50 of North Carolina's 100 counties. And keep in mind here: All of the counties collect and store data differently. They're not all digitized. So, not even we got a complete picture, but just from that period — that 20-year period in 50 of our 100 counties — we determined that 3,949 marriage license applications involving 4,218 minors were filed in that time.

So, the number of children is actually higher than the applications, because in some of them, it was two children petitioning to marry. But in 93% of those cases, it's a child and an adult. And so, if you extrapolate that out by population for the remaining 50 counties, it's just under 10,000 child marriages, which puts us top five with Texas, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Terry: And who are the people looking to get married this young in North Carolina? Is there a common demographic or does it vary?

Thompson: So, our research was archival. We were just looking at applications that showed sex and age of both petitioners. It's important to say that we got a very good spread across the state in terms of urban-rural geography: east, west, center. But we don't have demographic data beyond that.

What we did see, however, is that, as I said, 93% of applications are an adult trying to marry a minor. And then the most startling statistic that we found was that for the 14- and 15-year-olds, 57% of those applications would have actually been felonious under the state's statutory rape laws. So, in the majority of the 14- and 15-year-old applications, the sex that qualifies that marriage — because you have to be pregnant or parenting — is actually a felony offense.

Terry: Are all of these people who live in North Carolina or other people crossing state lines because they can't do this in their home state?

Thompson: This is the most alarming thing that we saw. ... You talked to Drew, so that's Buncombe County — he has seen an alarming uptick. He actually went back and looked through his county records over the same period and found that there was an increase from 11% out-of-state applications to 66% from 2000 to 2019. So, we're talking a tremendous increase, as he has said, becoming a sanctuary state for statutory rape.

So, as these other states have fixed their laws and have ... increased the age of marriage, folks who are getting denied applications in their home states are coming to us, and I think that makes the case for action all the more urgent and the reason that this bill is so important — drawing that bright line at 18.

Terry: What kind of effect does marrying at such a young age, have on girls? I'm thinking physical, but also just psychological.

Thompson: Every single indicator that you can measure shows the child marriage is not protected for girls. It's actually worse ...

Even in the case of single mothers, we see twice as likely to drop out of high school, four times as likely to drop out of college or community college, increased risk of domestic violence, sexually transmitted infection, increased rates of depression, even larger health concerns that you wouldn't necessarily expect like diabetes, stroke, some of these sort of secondary effects, very direct effects on early pregnancy, on multiple pregnancies spaced too closely together, increased rates of child and maternal mortality and morbidity, increased rates of poverty. It's just, like I said, across the board: Every indicator we measure, it's a sad story for these girls.

Terry: What surprised you the most when doing your research on this topic?

Thompson: It didn't surprise me that it's happening because we've seen that all over the world and all over the country. It didn't surprise me that the overwhelming majority of cases is between an adult and a minor. And those are two things that surprised most people about the research.

What did surprise me was the damning evidence that 57% of the 14- and 15-year-olds married would be a felony offense under our statutory rape laws. The fact that the same sex can be both legal and illegal in our state code and that that is happening so much of the time is clear evidence of harm and needs to be addressed immediately.

Terry: Thank you for taking the time.

Thompson: Absolutely.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.