America's Child Bride

Now on BB3
Ellie Flynn travels to the USA to investigate its Child Marriage laws. With many states poised to reconsider these laws, Ellie wants to see how child marriages affect the girls signed over to their grooms by their parents.

South Carolina is considering closing its legal “marry-your-rapist” loophole, which allows girls under 16 to marry if they are pregnant and have a parent’s consent. Ellie visits the record office in Spartanburg County to see if she can find evidence of children being married to men old enough to be charged with statutory rape for impregnating a minor. She finds 16 child marriages in the county in the last 10 years. In 10 cases, the groom could have been prosecuted under statutory rape laws.

One of these marriages was between teenager Keri, then 15, and Paul, then 24. Ellie meets Keri, who explains that when Paul found out she was pregnant and that police were investigating him, he was advised that marrying Keri might make the investigation go away. After persuading her dad to sign the marriage license, Keri and Paul wed, and the threat of charges went away.

Ellie wants to know if ex-husband Paul remembers things differently. He agrees that he married Keri to avoid prison, but asks: “wouldn’t you want somebody there to help you [with the baby], or would you rather have nobody help you at all?” This becomes a central question for Ellie. Whose rights are more important: the underage, pregnant child or the unborn, potentially fatherless baby?

Ellie travels to Georgia to meet 17-year-old Zion. She married at 16, and her groom David was just two years older than her, so Zion didn’t need to use the marry-your-rapist loophole, and nor was her groom at risk of prosecution for statutory rape. The couple met in high school, fell in love, and when Zion was 15 she fell pregnant with their son Isaac. Since Isaac’s birth, David has joined the military.

On the day David enlisted, wearing jeans and flannel shirts, he and Zion joined hands and made their vows. Many campaigners want to change Georgia’s minimum marriage age to 18, but Zion is convinced that this would have meant the end of hers and David’s family, as they would have been forced to live apart for two years.

Ellie asks Zion’s mother Michelle why she agreed to her daughter marrying so young. As a Christian, she believes that a man and a woman in a sexual relationship should be joined in matrimony, and that the rights of the unborn baby took priority over Zion’s. Ever since, Michelle has provided a loving and supportive home to Zion, and is helping raise Isaac.

But not all child marriages end in family harmony. Often it breaks families apart. Ellie is heading north to America's rocky mountain region. Here, a case involving conflicting laws, religious beliefs and ideas of parental responsibility left two men in prison and a family at war.

Heather, the bride at the centre of the case, found herself pregnant at 14, which brought a police investigation onto her 24-year-old boyfriend Aaron. When her mother - who lived in another state – found out her daughter was pregnant by an older man, she called the cops. But her father’s side of the family in Idaho were hatching a different plan. In Idaho, child marriage laws require a court order from a judge – but in the state of Missouri only the consent of one parent is needed. So on her 15th birthday, he got in the car and drove Heather across the USA to marry her rapist.

Thanks to Heather’s mother’s tenacity and the determination of local police, the marriage didn’t stop Aaron from being convicted of statutory rape. He was sentenced to 15 years in jail with a chance of parole after three. Heather miscarried, her relationship with Aaron soured and now, three years on and aged 18, she’s terrified of him coming out. As she and Ellie talk, Heather is horrified to notice that Aaron is no longer listed as an inmate online – meaning he’s on parole and free to come and find her.

At the time of the marriage Heather was livid with her mother, but now realises that she was the only person who put Heather’s interests before her baby’s right to have a father or Aaron’s freedom. In a rare twist, Heather’s father Keith also received a sentence: four months in jail. The judge said it was “for the four months that Heather was forced to be married to her rapist”. He was convicted of being an accessory to statutory rape and causing injury to a child for driving her across state lines to marry someone he knew to have slept with her before she could legally consent. Heather tells Ellie that all she wanted was to say “Daddy: I don’t want this! I’m scared. But I felt like I had no choice”.