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Child Marriage is Legal…in Kentucky?!?

Photo courtesy of Donna Pollard

Photo courtesy of Donna Pollard

As #MeToo takes on the “religious right” in Frankfort, the smart money is on two dynamic women: GOP state Senator Julie Raque Adams and Donna Pollard, a child marriage survivor who won’t take “no” for an answer.

During a week when the world lost Billy Graham, the modern era’s most powerful evangelical voice, the religious/political right continues to struggle through an identity crisis. On the one hand, we’ve never seen a President so thoroughly embrace the “moral majority’s” policy agenda.  On the other, we never seen a President so thoroughly embattled by charges of, at best, hedonism, and at worst, predatory behavior toward women. While the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins spoke for many in the movement by declaring that the First Golfer deserved a “mulligan” for his alleged adulterous affairs with porn stars, other evangelicals have found themselves deeply conflicted by a President whose maxim appears to be “do as I say, and not as I did.”

Here in the Bluegrass, Perkins’ counterparts at the Family Foundation of Kentucky have opened themselves up to a similar charge of hypocrisy.  For decades, the loudest voice for so-called “traditional” values — leading the fight against expanded gaming and marriage equality — the Family Foundation has now drawn their line in the sand on child marriage: Against a bill that would restrict the practice.

It’s hard to believe that child marriage is still an issue in 2018. But just in the past two decades, more than 200,000 minors were married in the U.S.  Kentucky has the third-highest rate in the country: On average, 250 Kentucky minors marry each year, more than 11,000 since 2000.  Over 90 percent of the time, it’s a minor marrying an adult, the youngest being a pregnant 13-year-old girl who wed a man two decades her senior.  Based on the parties’ ages alone, it’s a common case to witness a pregnant girl marrying her rapist.

It’s not surprising to learn that marrying young is often calamitous to a girl’s health, safety and wellness.  Studies demonstrate that girls who marry as minors drop out of school at higher rates, suffer from increased mental health issues, are more vulnerable to sexual and domestic violence, and are at more significant risk of a lifetime of poverty.

Donna Pollard is a living, surviving example.  At 14, she was seduced by a 29-year-old man who worked at the juvenile mental health facility that was supposed to be treating her.  Two years later, Donna’s mother dragged her to the county clerk’s office to wed her predator.  Soon after, Donna’s husband was choking her in front of their infant daughter.  But as a minor, Donna had no legal authority over her own self-protection; the police repeatedly came to her home, but accepted the much older husband’s assurances that everything was fine.

Kentucky laws still provide no minimum age for marriage.  16 year olds can marry with parental consent; although, as in Donna’s case, this sometimes can mean parental coercion.  A district court judge could allow even younger girls to marry if they are pregnant. Consider the incentive: Pedophiles can avoid prosecution for statutory rape by impregnating and marrying their child victims.

Donna Pollard has had enough.  Teaming with the Tahirih Justice Center, a national non-profit that seeks justice for girls and women, Donna is fighting to change the status quo in her home state.  She’s found a most worthy advocate in State Senator Julie Raque Adams (R-Louisville), who in this General Assembly session introduced SB 48, a bill that would ban marriage under 17.  Under Adams’ legislation, 17-year-olds would be required to secure the approval of a judge who would assess the minor’s maturity and self-sufficiency, and would have the discretion to “emancipate” the bride to ensure that she can protect herself in cases of abuse.  These common sense protections of minor girls have won the support of the influential Kentucky Youth Advocates, the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs and the Kentucky chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

And yet, one organization that’s led the decades-long fight for the “sanctity” of “traditional” marriage has registered opposition, stalling the bill’s progress.  The Family Foundation of Kentucky’s spokesman told Insider Louisville that the organization disapproves of the judicial process for 17-year-olds, claiming that “it takes away parental rights.” Supportive online commentary poses this as an issue of big government overreach, an unnecessary new law that interferes with family autonomy.

But if the government has any role, it’s to protect our children from pedophiles. And as Donna Pollard’s case illustrates, too often the predatory relationship is driven by an abusive parent who doesn’t have the child’s best interests at heart.  SB 48 would provide a neutral judge’s oversight to either delay nuptials until the girl is old enough to consent, or empower the girl with the kinds of legal protections that were out of young Donna’s grasp.

Former Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R), who serves as Tahirih’s pro bono lobbyist in Frankfort, is bullish on SB 48’s passage: “What has been striking to me is how this bill captured so much attention from the beginning.  Social media has exploded with people, including Ashley Judd, sharing, liking, retweeting at a feverish pace.  Donna is a rock star, a real inspiration, and Julie Raque Adams is such a talented legislator.  Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Whitney Westerfield wants this to pass and is working diligently to craft a solution. Kentucky is on the cusp of fixing this law.”

Of course, in our polarized and paralyzed political system, even the best pieces of legislation face obstacles, especially when there’s organized opposition. But there’s never been a time where activism — particularly on behalf of girls and women — has been more effective.  Click here to contact your legislators: I can assure you that your voice matters.


(Full disclosure: Trey Grayson is my law partner, and my older daughter interned for Tahirih.  Full disclosure x2: I’m proud of them both.)

Article written by Jonathan Miller

Jonathan Miller, The Recovering Politician (Twitter: @RecoveringPol), writes about the politics of sport and the sport of politics...and sometimes about bourbon. Jonathan has been elected twice as Kentucky's State Treasurer; practices as a crisis management attorney; authored three books on faith, public policy and crisis management; serves as a Contributor to The Daily Beast, played straight man on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; reached the final table of the World Series of Poker; and with his summer camp sweetheart, raised two remarkable twenty-something daughters.