The phrase “child marriage” may evoke the star-crossed romance of young Romeo and Juliet.
But the reality is very different. Of the 11,000 under-age marriages that occurred in Kentucky from 2000 to 2015, only 7 percent were between two minors, according to Donna Pollard, founder of the Louisville based non-profit Survivors’ Corner. The vast majority of cases were between a minor and adult, where the age difference between the two could be as great 35 years.
Pollard, who is a child marriage survivor, successfully lobbied state lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 48, which limits the unions of adults and children in the commonwealth. She shared her story on KET’s Connections.
Donna Pollard’s childhood was not easy. Her father was battling terminal lung cancer, and her mother was physically and emotionally abusive.
“She was 45-years old when she had me and her pregnancy with me was extremely unexpected,” says Pollard. “I always knew growing up that I was not someone that she wanted in her life.”
Shortly after her father’s death, Pollard was placed in a mental health treatment center. There she met her future husband, who was an attendant at the facility. She was 14 and he was 29. Pollard says the man seemed to care for her, but she later learned that his attentions were simply a way to manipulate her.
“He targeted me because he knew I was a very vulnerable child who was in need of help from the trauma that I had suffered,” Pollard says. “Plus I had just lost my father, so he knew that he was fulfilling that role as well.”
Shortly after Pollard’s release, her mother consented to a relationship between her teenage daughter and the older man. Then she gave them permission to marry.
“I think at the time she was looking to offload the burden of having a teenager at home,” Pollard says of her mother.
Pollard was 16 years old when she married the man she now calls her perpetrator. Within a year, she was pregnant.
New Law Limits Child Marriages
Prior to passage of Senate Bill 48, Kentucky had no minimum age for marriages. Pollard says 16- and 17-year-olds could marry with parental consent. Children under 16 could wed if a judge approved of the union and if a pregnancy was involved.
Although the numbers of underage marriages has dropped to a few hundred a year in Kentucky, the particulars of specific cases can be startling. In her research, conducted in association with the University of Louisville, Pollard says she found a marriage between a 13-year-old girl and a 33-year-old man. In another instance, a 52-year-old man had a 15-year-old bride. Both girls were pregnant at the time of their marriages.
“Their pregnancies were evidence of rape,” Pollard says. “Their offenders, by marrying their victims, were able to hide their offenses behind a marriage license.”
Pollard says her own mother had been a child bride, marrying when she was only 13. While most child marriages involve younger females, Pollard says there are cases where boys are the younger partner. She says there are several examples where the boy was at least 10 years younger than the woman. In one case, a 16-year-old boy had a wife who was 32.
When she began her lobbying efforts, Pollard hoped to make 18 the minimum age for marriage in Kentucky. But that met opposition from people who opposed the state usurping parental authority to consent to their child’s marriage, and from those who pointed to their own parents who married young but went on to have successful marriages. Pollard says those cases do happen, but are the exceptions.
“Nearly 80 percent of child marriages end in divorce,” she says.
The compromise version of SB 48 sets a minimum age for marriage in Kentucky at 17, and the age gap between the two individuals can be no more than four years. The couple also has to appear before a judge for a formal interview to ensure there is no coercion between the parties. The minor must be self-sufficient, have completed high school or have a GED®, and have been living independently for the past three months.
The judge can consider parental consent in his or her decision to allow the marriage to proceed, but it is no longer the determining factor. The 17-year-old is also granted emancipation upon receiving the marriage license.
“That gives that 17-year-old the freedom to either follow through with the marriage or to go ahead as a legal adult now that they are emancipated and get themselves in a different type of situation,” she says.
Pollard says she hopes SB 48 will serve as a national model. She says at least two dozen states still have no minimum age requirement for marriage. Tennessee is considering similar legislation, she says, and Florida just passed a child marriage law that is not as strong as the one just enacted here.
“Kentucky has positioned itself as a leader across our nation in passing this legislation,” Pollard says. “When Gov. Bevin signed this into law… that to me was just this huge victory for the children in Kentucky.”
Ending the Cycle of Abuse for All Children
Had SB 48 existed back in the early 2000s when Pollard was an under-age bride and expectant mother, she says her life would have turned out differently.
“I would not have been set up to marry a predator,” Pollard says. “That would’ve been [prosecuted] as a statutory rape offense because becase he was in a position of authority over me.”
Instead she was locked into a relationship that she describes as physically abusive, emotionally manipulative, and sexually exploitive. She tried to get help at a domestic violence shelter, but was turned away because she wasn’t an adult. She also couldn’t rent an apartment on her own because she was too young.
At age 18, Pollard gave birth to her first child, and sometime later decided to leave her husband. She didn’t want her daughter raised in such a dysfunctional and dangerous environment.
“She was going to end up growing up normalizing this type of behavior and then end up in the same abusive cycle herself if I did not get out of the situation,” Pollard says.
In the process, though, Pollard gave up custody of her daughter because she believed she was incapable of caring for her. Pollard says she has no relationship with the child, now 16 years old, but she hopes she can in the future when the girl is old enough to appreciate what Pollard has done to help protect children facing abusive relationships.
Until then Pollard says she’ll help other states enact child marriage laws and work with schools, businesses, and organizations that serve children to develop policies that hold employees accountable for improper relationships with minors. She’s also focused on raising a second daughter and teaching her about her value and self-worth, and about functional relationships.
“The people who deserve to be in your life are the ones who are building you up and empowering you to be your best version of yourself,” Pollard says. “If anyone wants to change that, you know that that is not a healthy situation for you to be in.”