‘I do’ at 14: Michigan’s secret child marriages

Target 8

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Adults in Michigan are marrying children as young as 14 and it’s perfectly legal.

Few people know because the state hides the marriage documents, sealing them from the public.

Ann (a pseudonym) married in West Michigan at the age of 14.

“We went to the courthouse. It took five minutes,” she said. “I think we kissed or something, and that was it.”

Now nearly 40 and living in Florida, Ann told Target 8 the decision that was made for her decades ago still affects her life.

She asked that her real name not be used to protect her family. Target 8 is also not using her husband’s name.

Her story is one of many. Michigan has recorded dozens or even hundreds of child marriages in a year.

“It sets a person up to be taken advantage of,” Ann said.

MARRIED ‘BECAUSE THEY WANTED ME TO, I GUESS’

Ann was living in the small Montcalm County town of Vestaburg in 1995 when she met the man she would marry. She was 13. He was 17.

“I was smitten as soon as I saw him,” she remembered.

She said the relationship started out innocently. But when her boyfriend turned 18 a year later, Ann’s father, who was unhappy about the relationship, threatened him with jail.

“My dad looked it up and figured out it would be statutory rape because I was so young,” Ann said.

Ann said her boyfriend became suicidal.

When asked why she got married at 14, she didn’t have a clear answer:

“I don’t know. Because they wanted me to, I guess,” she said. “I loved him. I didn’t want him to die. My mom wanted me to get married.”

She added that she didn’t want to get married, but felt pressured. She said her boyfriend stayed up all night convincing her to marry him the next day.

Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, she went to the courthouse and said, “I do.” There was no ring, no flowers and no questions asked. The only requirement was one parent’s signature.

“They actually gave us the paper to take it home to sign, like it was a permission slip,” Ann explained. “You know, to go on a field trip. That’s it.”

JUDGE CAN OK MARRIAGE REGARDLESS OF AGE

Under Michigan law, you need to be 18 to get married without restrictions. At age 16 and 17, you need parental consent. Those younger than 16 need a parent’s and a judge’s approval. With a judge’s approval, there is no age limit.

“That I could get married under the age that I could consent to sex, that blows my mind,” Ann said.

Child marriages like Ann’s happen every year in Michigan. In 2000, there were 537. In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, there were 116.

It was while trying to pull the records for Ann’s marriage that Target 8 found out how the secret is so well kept. The records are sealed. The state hides the identities of the bride and groom. Even with Ann and her husband’s name, Target 8 couldn’t get a copy of their marriage license. Only the husband and wife can unseal the record, and they have to do it in person.

The majority of Michigan’s underage marriages, 84 percent, involve girls marrying adult men. It took a Freedom of Information Act request to discover some teen girls are marrying men three times their age. One record listed a 15-year-old bride and a 48-year-old groom.

DEPENDENT ON AN ABUSIVE HUSBAND

Ann’s marriage was bad from the beginning.

At 14, she was pulled out of school and stuck at home to fill what she called “wifely duties.”

“I didn’t know how to cook and he wanted me to be a certain way that I couldn’t be,” Ann said, breaking down into tears.

She said she was punished for being a “bad” housewife.

“He was very particular. His socks had to be folded a certain way. His everything had to be just so,” she said. “If he was mad and I bumped into him, he might punch me or something.”

She said he even threatened to kill her.

Miles away from family and friends, Ann said she would sometimes run to a neighbor’s home to hide for the night until her husband calmed down in the morning.

She was too young to drive or have a job.

“You need the money, you need the help, you need everything and you really appreciate everything you get,” she said.

STATE OFFICIAL: TIME TO STOP CHILD MARRIAGES

Milton Mack once presided over the secret marriages as a probate court judge. Now the state court administrator, he wants to abolish them.

“This was designed for a situation where a child had gotten pregnant and they wanted to legitimize the child,” he said of the current law.

But he said it can be used as a legal loophole.

“Judges have seen cases where they come in and the marriage is basically to absolve the older male of any criminal responsibility,” he said.

The law that seals underage marriage records dates back to 1897. The law that set marriage age rules, including the approval requirements for underage weddings, dates back even further, to 1887.

“Whatever purpose that once had is long, long expired,” Mack said. “It’s time to go.”

Science supports that opinion. The part of your brain responsible for decision-making does not fully develop until your 20s.

“Since a young person’s emotional part is developed but not their logical thinking, lots of times they can be swayed by other people. They can get into what other people want of them, especially if someone is older, more mature,” Dr. Matthew Clark, a child psychologist, said.

Ann said even a religious argument for marriages so young doesn’t make sense.

“Marriage involves sex, so you aren’t making them any more pure by getting married,” she said.

CHILD BRIDE WANTS CHANGE FOR DAUGHTERS

Ann is still married to the same man. She said he has matured and now agrees they should not have married so young.

Still, she said, she deals with fear and sadness daily.

“Because who knows what I could have done with life not having to stay up all night cleaning,” she said.

Ann is finally working on a college degree so she sets an example for her daughters, who inspired her to try and change the law.

“My daughter turned 14 and I could look at her and go, ‘Wow, that’s not the life I would want for my daughter,'” Ann said. “She’s a kid, she should be playing and doing what she wants to do.”

“I want the law to change,” she said. “It doesn’t do anybody any good.”

Forty-eight other states allow child marriages. Four months ago, Delaware became the first state to ban it. An advocacy group called Unchained At Last helped the change the law there and in New Jersey, which outlawed child marriage in June.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Know something newsworthy? Report It!