FRANKFORT, Ky. — The Kentucky legislature is considering outlawing most child marriages in an effort to protect young girls from exploitation and abuse.
Senate bill 48 would ban county clerks from issuing marriage licenses to anyone 16-years-old and younger. Seventeen-year-olds could still get married, but they would need permission from their parents and a judge. The bill unanimously passed a legislative committee Tuesday and could be called for a vote this week.
Most states allow children to marry with the permission of the court or their parents, according to the Pew Research Center. Child marriage was more common decades ago, especially in eastern Kentucky where Country music legend Loretta Lynn of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” fame was born. Lynn married at 15 to Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn, who was 21 at the time. The two were married for nearly 50 years until his death in 1996, and their life together inspired several of her songs.
While child marriage is less common today, a review of Kentucky data over the last 17 years by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found 11,000 minors wed during that span.
Donna Pollard, founder of the advocacy group Survivor’s Corner, said her review of Kentucky marriage data revealed instances of a 13-year-old girl marrying a 33-year-old man in the early 2000s and a 15-year-old girl marrying 52-year-old man, among other examples.
“It’s pretty shocking. I can’t think of any reason why that should be permitted,” said Whitney Westerfield, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that advanced the bill Tuesday.
Kentucky has no minimum age limit for marriage, and currently anyone under 16 who is pregnant can be married with permission from a judge. Advocates say judges in most cases look only for consent, something they argue is easily coerced from a child.
That’s what Pollard said happened to her when she was 16 and married a 31-year-old man. She said she was physically abused and sexually exploited before she was able to get a divorce four years later.
“I was trapped. I wasn’t able to get out because of my underage status. Even though I was married, I still did not have the legal rights as an adult,” she said. “Once I was able to escape form the situation and I realized that so many other children were impacted, that’s what inspired me to move forward legislation that could make a change.”
The proposal would still let 17-year-olds marry. But they would have to prove to a judge they have “maturity and capacity for self-sufficiency.” They can do this by proving they have had stable housing and a job for at least three months plus showing they have finished high school or have an equivalent degree or job training certification.
The proposal would not let 17-year-olds marry someone who is “in a position of authority or special trust” over them or anyone who is more than four years older than they are. And they could not marry anyone who has been convicted of criminal domestic violence, a crime against a minor or has gotten the minor pregnant.