NEW YORK (AP) — Child marriage wasn’t an issue of note for Virginia state Sen. Jill Vogel until she heard the stories circulating in her district about a man in his early 50s marrying a girl in her mid-teens, warding off a police investigation of his relationship with her.
Now Vogel is lead sponsor of a bill advancing in Virginia’s legislature that would sharply curtail child marriage.
“Our marriage laws in Virginia are not protecting children,” she said.
A similar measure has been introduced in Maryland, and a pending bill in New York goes even further — it would make the state the first to ban marriage altogether for anyone under 18.
Across the U.S., states laws generally set 18 as the minimum age for marriage, yet every state allows some exceptions. Most states let 16- and 17-year-olds marry if they have parental consent, and several states — including New York, Virginia and Maryland — allow children under 16 to marry if a court official gives approval.
In Virginia, where girls under 16 can get married in cases of pregnancy, some of the age differences are striking. In 2010, a girl under 15 married a man in his 30s; another girl under 15 married a man in his 50s in 2006, state records say.
The health department records give no further details — they do not identify the court officials who approved the marriages or give any indication whether there was an investigation into the circumstances of the girl’s pregnancy.
“It’s haunting for us, looking at this data,” said Casey Carter Swegman, project manager of Tahirih’s Forced Marriage Initiative. “We want to reach out to those girls and at least find out if they’re OK, and who the judge was, and we’ve been told there’s no way to find out more.”