JEFFERSON CITY — Teens can get married in Missouri as young as age 15 if their parents agree.
That's young. But in two other states, the age of parental consent for girls is 13 or younger.
And in many states, including Missouri, a child can go to a court at any age to ask permission to get married from a judge.
An effort is underway to raise the age of parental consent for marriage in Missouri. Child advocates say there are many potential problems with marrying at a young age.
"The effects are beyond psychological," said Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit dedicated to helping girls avoid or leave forced marriages. "There are lifelong consequences. It undermines her health, her education, her economic opportunities, and it also increases her risk of experiencing violence."
The main target of the Missouri proposal is sex trafficking.
State Rep. Jean Evans, R-St. Louis, is sponsoring the bill that would increase Missouri's marriage age for parental consent to 17. She believes that it will help prevent sex trafficking, because parents can use marriage licenses as a way to exploit their children.
"Having one parent’s permission doesn’t keep kids from being trafficked," Evans said. "People sell their children."
Reiss agreed that parental consent does not offer adequate protection.
"We know of situations in other states where girls have shown up at the clerk’s office openly crying while their parents signed the marriage license application and forced them into marriage, and the clerks did not intervene," she said.
Evans said she wants to raise the age limit to 17 because it is the legal age to have a sexual encounter. She argued that if 17 is the legal age for consent, the state shouldn’t allow kids to get married and have sex beforehand.
Reiss said that's not good enough: 18 should be the standard.
"The reason it is so important to peg marriage at the age of maturity is because a child can easily be forced into marriage before he or she has the rights of an adult and can leave home and get into a shelter and bring legal action in his or her own name," Reiss said. "It is very difficult to escape from a forced marriage before that."
According to the Tahirih Justice Center, a national nonprofit that works on behalf of immigrant women, 7,342 children under the age of 18 were married from 2000 to 2014 in Missouri.
Reiss said that most of those children were married at 16 or 17. But she said about 860 of them were married at 15 or younger.
Jennifer Carter Dochler, the public policy director at the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said Evans' bill will not only help stop sex trafficking, but protect teens from domestic violence.
"Some people might not have the best home life, and they think they met someone to bring them happiness," Dochler said.
She also said the coalition has seen cases where parents have sold their children into marriage, "and those marriages turned into domestic violence situations."
Reiss said other reasons that children and teens are forced into marriage include immigration issues. Sometimes girls are forced to marry men from overseas so that the men can get visas.
Evans said the main opposition that she has heard to the proposal comes from those who are leery of restricting the freedom of youth.
"There has been some pushback," Evans said. "The general argument is, what if you have two 16-year-olds that want to get married?"
On the other hand, the Tahirih Justice Center shares Reiss' concern that the current House bill does not go far enough. According to written testimony, the organization is "concerned that it would continue to inadequately protect 17-year-olds."
The organization said it suggests that the House Children and Family Committee, which is considering Evans' bill, eliminate all exceptions to age 18 as the minimum marriage age.
Evans said that the committee might make some changes to the bill. "I don’t know if they are completely done with the bill in terms of hammering it out," said Evans. The committee plans to vote on the bill on Feb. 13.
Currently, children under 15 are allowed to marry with a judge's consent and parental approval. The judge may issue the license for people showing "good cause."
Reiss said the Missouri legislation should also stop judges from giving permission.
"In other states we’ve seen a lot of marriages approved by judges where the age difference constitutes statutory rape. So clearly in a lot of cases judges aren’t paying close enough attention," Reiss said.
"In other states, I’ve worked with other people to end all marriage before 18 with no exceptions or judicial approval. Bills like that are pending in New Jersey, Maryland and Massachusetts,” she said.
Supervising editor is Mark Horvit.