America’s child brides forced to marry abusers

Published by The Mail on Sunday (2nd September 2018)

Donna Pollard had only just turned 16 when she stood in a Kentucky state court house with a serial paedophile who had used his position of trust to groom and repeatedly rape her over the previous two years.

Her abuser, smartly dressed in a dark suit and blue tie, was not cuffed or restrained in any way. For he was not facing any charges for the hideous crimes that devastated a fragile girl’s life from the age of 14.

Incredibly, he was in court to marry his victim – with the full consent of Donna’s mother and under the authority of a state that not only sanctioned child marriage but turned a blind eye as abused children are forced into wedlock with their attackers.

Indeed, that very act of matrimony helped Donna’s abuser, a mental health counsellor almost twice her age, evade charges for statutory rape under laws that only applied to younger victims and could have put him behind bars for many years.

‘I am appalled the law could allow such a thing,’ Donna told me. ‘Laws are supposed to protect victims, not the people who exploit them. Instead my life was ripped apart by a paedophile who took advantage of our marriage laws.’

Yet her terrible and tragic tale is far from unique. I spoke to several other Kentucky women who told me similar heart-rending stories of being abused as teenagers and then forced to marry their attackers. One was just 13 and pregnant when made to marry her rapist.

And there are thousands more of these disturbing cases scattered across the United States, a few involving girls not yet into their teens when forced into matrimony. Some hail from religious communities, some from poor rural areas, some from prosperous cities.

This is the legacy of archaic laws and outdated views on teenage pregnancy.

Astonishingly, child marriage is still sanctioned in much of the United States – and some conservative politicians and libertarian activists fight to protect the practice.

Although data is incomplete, one study found that, during the first 15 years of this century, at least 207,459 minors – legally defined as those under 18 – were allowed to marry. Almost all were girls, and most were aged 16 and 17 – but 12-year-olds received permits in three states and 13-year-olds in 14 states, including Kentucky.

In Alabama, a 74-year-old man was given a licence to marry a 14-year-old girl – yet, as in many other cases including Donna’s, this relationship would have led to a statutory rape charge and being placed on the sex offenders register had it occurred outside marriage.

Kentucky had the third-highest number of US child marriages, with 11,000 being permitted since 2000. But thanks to the efforts of Donna – who was one of those cases – a new law signed last month bans unions for people under 18 – although 17-year-olds can marry if they meet strict restrictions.

Donna’s story is horrific, although ultimately inspiring. Her father, a long-distance lorry driver, was loving but often away with work. He already had two children when, at 17, he married Donna’s mother, who was just 13 at the time and later suffered mental health problems.

Her mother was cold and violent, frequently beating her with a stick. When Donna was 13, her father died and soon after she began to fight back when attacked by her mother. As a result, she was sent to see a psychologist and ended up in a special behavioural unit for five weeks.

There, the vulnerable, lonely girl was seized upon by a 29-year-old counsellor. ‘He was very nice to me, very compassionate, making me feel special with lots of attention,’ said Donna. ‘I just wanted to please him because I wanted someone to be kind to me.’

Soon they were having secret meetings, hugs and finally sex – although she was just 14. After Donna’s release, incredibly, her own mother drove her weekly to a hotel to carry on the relationship. ‘She saw him as an exit card, a way to relieve the burden of me.’

Shortly after Donna’s 16th birthday, the counsellor’s own mother discovered what was going on and threatened to tell the police. The man whipped out a gun, threatened to kill himself, then turned it on his mother and drove her out of the house.

Within days, Donna and her abuser were before a court clerk, who did not even look up from her computer when asking who was the minor. Donna’s mother and the official signed a licence – and the troubled teenager was taken straight off to be married by a preacher to a paedophile.

Her school turned her away, so Donna lost a precious scholarship and her education was stymied. She was pregnant at 17, yet her controlling and violent husband forced her to work in a strip club, making her hand over wages and procure him drugs and girls.

She determined to flee after seeing her infant daughter laugh – thinking they were playing a game – while she was being throttled on the ground by her husband. ‘I went to a domestic violence centre,’ said Donna. ‘But they turned me away since I was under 18 and a minor.’

She finally escaped at 19. Remarkably, she went on to college and obtained a degree a few years later, but kept her abuse and marriage hidden even from friends while struggling with serious psychological damage, including depression and severe anxiety.

Two years ago, aged 32 and working as a health care manager, Donna decided to find out if other women had suffered similar situations and ended up talking with Jeanne Smoot from the Tahirih Justice Center, which opposes gender-based violence. ‘I told her my goal was to change the law in my home state,’ she said.

Smoot, senior counsel with the TJC, argues such cases show the urgent need for reform across the country. ‘The state is failing to recognise child abuse,’ she said. ‘These laws are the vestige of antiquated and misguided assumptions of what is in a girl’s best interests.’

Smoot added that many terrified victims went to courts desperately hoping they would be saved by officials, only to find their trauma intensifying. ‘One girl told me she was crying, which the court clerk interpreted as jitters and told her it should be the happiest day of her life.’

The Kentucky reform was promoted by Republican state senator Julie Adams, who said she was astounded when she met Donna last autumn. ‘My jaw was on the floor as she was telling her story,’ she said. ‘It was mind-boggling. I had no idea about child marriage.’

Yet when she raised the issue, Adams was stunned by the volume of emails and letters she received from women disclosing similar experiences. ‘As a society, we allowed this marginalisation of women to be legal. We had to connect our civil and criminal laws.’

The issue exposes great hypocrisy in a country that campaigns against child marriage around the world. ‘There’s no place in civilised society for the early or forced marriage of children,’ said Barack Obama when president.

He is right. Yet it only really emerged in the US when a few brave survivors such as Donna started telling their life stories in public to protect future generations from suffering similar fates.

Many women were suffering in silence, thinking their cases were unique. But since Donna set up a support group, called Survivors’ Corner, other women who have suffered similar experiences have come forward.

Delaware became the first state to outlaw all marriage of minors in May, despite claims it would lead to more abortions from one opponent. Several others – including Texas, which had most marriages of minors this century – have updated and strengthened their laws.

Yet 18 states still do not set an age floor, including Idaho, which has the highest rates of child marriage per head. Seven states have laws that accept pregnancy as a reason to waive minimum age rules and only 13 require minors to get approval from a judge before they marry.

Reform has met resistance from some conservatives, including Albert Robinson, senator for the county where Donna lived when married. ‘When he spoke against the bill, it was as if he was saying it was OK my rape was legal in his county because I was married,’ she told me.

Robinson, a former sausage maker turned property dealer, told me he was opposed to government interference in family life. ‘The parents are the reason the child exists and I find it hard to believe any parents would force their child into marriage.

‘If the parents of the father-to-be and the pregnant girl can work things out, that’s a lot better than having an abortion,’ he added. ‘My wife’s mother married at 14 and she arrived a year later – and she’s one of the best things that ever happened to me.’

Robinson backs child marriage yet opposes marriage for gay and lesbian adults. He is not alone: in nearby Rowan county, which has permitted 92 minors to marry this century, the court clerk famously went to jail rather than issue wedding licences to same-sex couples.

Such arguments over parental rights angered Judy Wiegand, a paediatric therapist who suffered deeply as a naive 13-year-old forced to marry her 17-year-old rapist.

Wiegand never dared tell anyone about the assault at a roller skating rink, thinking she must have been partly to blame, but then became pregnant. ‘My father was very angry,’ she said. ‘But in my mind I thought I had broken the rules and put myself in a bad place.’

They lived in a religious, ultra-conservative rural community, so the pair’s mothers agreed their teenagers should marry. When they went to see the county clerk to get a permit, ‘she looked at me down her glasses like I was tainted and never spoke to me,’ said Wiegand.

She wore a yellow dress to get married, a slender girl weighing little more than five stone. ‘I still slept with a teddy bear and played with my Barbies. I just wanted it all to be over. There was a preacher but he did not really talk to me either.’

Her subsequent story echoed others I heard: she was badly abused, her schooling was stopped, she became quickly pregnant again, then left after the child was threatened.

Searching for security, she rebounded into another bad relationship before finally finding stability. ‘It was really hard to build a decent life,’ said Wiegand, now happily married. ‘I never had a first date, I never had a prom, I never graduated from school. I missed so much.’

Some of these unions were horrifically violent, such as that of Glenda Welp, who at 14 was made to marry a neighbour twice her age who beat her regularly. She suffered seizures after having a typewriter smashed on her head when eight-months pregnant. When she managed to escape, her husband came after her with a gun. ‘He said he was going to kill me, my baby and then himself.’

Fortunately Welp’s mother called the police. ‘He was just getting ready to shoot us when he heard the siren and ran off, but still tried taking the TV.’

Others were treated less violently but were still victims of paedophiles, such as Loretta Scott, a 38-year-old carer. She started being pursued aged just 12 by a man attending her Pentecostal church who befriended her family, then was forced to marry him by her parents three years later.

‘I cried myself to sleep,’ she said. ‘He stopped me going to school, which was where all my friends were, and did not want me around boys. One time my brother came to visit but was told not to come back. He wanted to control everything and everyone who spoke with me.’

After four years, she fled and later discovered her husband had married two other teenage girls. ‘It’s such a difficult thing to get over. I’ve never really talked about it with anyone,’ said Scott. ‘I have a girl of ten and I just can’t imagine sending her away.’

Sherry Johnson, a prominent campaigner in Florida, revealed she was married to her rapist at 11 after becoming pregnant.

Unsurprisingly, studies find child brides far more likely to suffer severe health, financial and educational difficulties throughout their lives than other women.

Ironically, they also fare worse than unmarried teenage mothers since they are far more likely to quickly have a second child, said Vivian Hamilton, a law professor who has testified before several state hearings on the issue.

Like so many others, Hamilton is stunned to find these practices still existing in the United States.

‘I don’t think God wants little girls marrying rapists,’ said one survivor to me. ‘It is so bizarre that this is still going on in this day and age.’

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