- Laura A. Bischoff Columbus bureau
At first, 15-year-old Kristi Hatfield lied to her parents about the age of her boyfriend, a neighbor in their apartment complex, but they found out the truth after she got pregnant: He was a decade older than her.
With her mother’s blessing, Hatfield and her boyfriend, Daniel Bostwick, Jr., asked Montgomery County Juvenile Court Judge Nick Kuntz for permission to marry. Kuntz seemed to balk initially, Hatfield said.
“Then I started crying and he asked why I wanted to be married and I answered, ‘Because I love him.’ Truth was because I was pregnant and thought it was the right thing to do,” Hatfield recalled. “I was a typical 15-year-old and thought I was prepared for anything and thought I knew it all. In actuality, I wasn’t prepared for any of it.”
The couple struggled and about four years into their 2001 marriage they split up but never divorced. Bostwick died of cancer in 2014.
“Just decided we shouldn’t be together anymore,” Hatfield said by text message. “I got older and realized it wasn’t what I wanted.”
Child marriage isn’t limited to Third World countries. It happens fairly regularly in Ohio. Brides and grooms so young that they aren’t allowed to vote, buy tobacco, alcohol or a lottery ticket, go to an R-rated movie or enter a casino are getting married after approval by the courts.
Ohio law requires brides to be at least 16 and grooms to be at least 18, but exceptions are made for younger, pregnant teens if they have parental consent and juvenile court approval. That effectively means there is no legal minimum age for marriage in Ohio.
Fraidy Reiss, executive director of Unchained At Last, a national non-profit advocating for an end to child marriage, said the state’s marital laws put Ohio in the same company as Yemen, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“Shame on Ohio for having 16th century laws still on the books,” she said.
4,443 child marriages
An investigation by this newspaper found judges have approved thousands of marriages involving minors in Ohio since 2000, and there is concern among advocates and other experts that Ohio’s marriage laws are too lenient, setting up young girls for failure and even exploitation. The investigation, which examined marriage records from 2000 to 2015 obtained from the Ohio Department of Health through an open records request, found:
Ohio State University law professor Katherine Federle, an expert in juvenile law, said state statutes are designed to discourage abortion and encourage marriage. At the same time, marital law can conflict with criminal law, she said.
In the case of Hatfield and Bostwick, he could have been charged with unlawful sexual conduct with a minor — which prohibits sex between adults and children between 13 and 15, she said. The age of sexual consent in Ohio is 16 and sex with anyone under 13 is considered statutory rape, Federle said.
“So, the law is intersecting in an odd way here. We could prosecute every adult who comes to the juvenile court with a minor and they want to marry on this basis that it was perhaps unlawful sexual conduct with a minor,” Federle said. “But then we have another piece of the law that is trying to encourage her to keep the child and to get married to this person. This is creating problems, I think.”
Child marriages happen in small towns, big cities and middle class suburbs across America and Ohio. Although some states are looking at more restrictions, marriage before age 18 is still legal in all 50 states, according to the Unchained At Last advocacy group.
Roughly 248,000 children were married in America between 2000 and 2010 — most of them girls married to adult men, according to estimates provided by Unchained. The highest rates of child marriage are in Idaho, Kentucky and Arkansas while the lowest rates are in New Hampshire, New York and New Jersey.
The Tahirih Justice Center, another non-profit that seeks to end underage marriage, compiled marriage laws in all 50 states and found 25 states have no bottom floor age below which a child cannot be married, even with parental or judicial approval.
Connecticut, New York and Texas each recently adopted laws to increase the minimum marriage age and several other states are considering legislation to do so, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Unchained group.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in May vetoed a bill that would have made New Jersey the first state in the U.S. to ban marriage before age 18, without exceptions. Protesters dressed as brides in chains picketed the New Jersey Statehouse to protest the veto.
Ohio is not one of the states looking to tighten restrictions. Not a single bill has been introduced in the Ohio General Assembly to address the issue.
State Rep. Jeff Rezabek, R-Clayton, an attorney who practices juvenile and family law, said some of the cases of young, pregnant teens marrying older men point to problems in Ohio’s laws.
Rezabek said he isn’t committed to changing the law but will evaluate it.
“If you have, God forbid, a 13-, 14- or 15-year-old marrying somebody that is two, three, four times their age, I think that raises some questions as to why the judge or the other court players or the parents of a particular case were not seeking other remedies through the judicial system,” he said.
High failure rate
With the Ohio exception allowing young pregnant teens or child moms to marry, the question of ‘when is it too young to marry’ falls to juvenile court judges and the parents of minors, who must first give their consent. Once the juvenile court gives its approval, the probate court issues the marriage license.
Statistics show child marriages have a notoriously high failure rate.
A 2012 study published in the Boston University Law Review found that adolescents who enter marriage in their mid-teens experience marriage failure rates of nearly 80 percent, compared with a 30 percent divorce rate for those who marry after age 24.
William & Mary Law School Professor Vivian Hamilton, the study’s author, said teens lack the maturity and skills needed to maintain a modern marriage. Girls who marry as young teens often sacrifice education, income and their physical and mental health, Hamilton found.
“I think that overall there is a lessening of stigma of non-marital birth and so I think that makes it less likely that either terminating the pregnancy or marrying the father are seen as the only options,” she said.
Hamilton argues that states should raise the minimum age to marry to 21, remove all legal exceptions that allow people under 18 to marry and impose clearer and higher standards for judicial approval.
Montgomery County Juvenile Court Judge Anthony Capizzi said he opposes underage marriage.
“I think children are still immature at 14, 15, 16 and even 17,” said Capizzi, who also serves as president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. “I’m personally not in favor of very young adults getting married. I would like them to get a high school education before they deal with the challenges of marriage. That’s my personal opinion.”
In his 13 years on the bench, Capizzi approved one marriage involving minors, according to court records: a 16-year-old pregnant girl and her 17-year-old boyfriend in December 2009.
Capizzi said he doesn’t recall the case. “If I did it, I must have reviewed the facts and made a determination,” he said.
The newspaper tracked down the mother of the then 17-year-old boy and asked why she granted permission.
“We found out she was pregnant and my son wanted to step up and do the right thing,” said the mom, who lives in Moraine and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They had already talked about getting married and having kids down the road. It’s what my son wanted to do.”
Although the couple divorced in June 2017, the mother said her son would make the same decision again.
“He had to sacrifice some things but he has a beautiful 7-year-old daughter and 2-year-old daughter,” she said of her son, who works as a police officer. “I don’t think that he would change anything that he has gone through either.”
Hamilton’s 2012 study found a large percentage of child marriages occur after the girl gets pregnant.
‘If I could stop it, I would stop it’
In Clark County, four juvenile court judges or magistrates gave minors approval to marry in nine cases between 2000 and 2015.
Clark County Probate Judge Richard Carey won’t put his name on same-sex marriage licenses, but records show he approved issuing a marriage license for a 15-year-old girl and a 23-year-old construction worker from Medway in 2004 and another marriage license for a 15-year-old girl and an 18-year-old man in 2007.
“We give a fair amount of leeway to the families — that this is what the family wants to do,” Carey said. “I don’t remember those particular cases so I don’t remember the circumstances that I would have considered.”
Carey said cultural differences and family considerations typically factor into such decisions. “Would I let my 15-year-old get married?” he asked rhetorically. “If I could stop it, I would stop it.”
‘It’s too young’
Interviews with judges provided similar answers: Most were uncomfortable having a role in approving marriages that, statistically speaking, have little chance of surviving.
Montgomery County Juvenile Court Judge Nick Kuntz, who has been on the bench for 22 years, said, “I have four granddaughters that are 14. Do I think that any of them are capable of making that kind of decision? No. Certainly, I would recommend against it.”
Still, court records show Kuntz signed off on eight underage marriages since 2001, including Hatfield and Bostwick.
In response to the newspaper’s questions, Kuntz reviewed the circumstances of the Hatfield and Bostwick marriage and said they raise some concerns. As a judge, Kuntz is mandated by law to report suspected child abuse and neglect, but he doesn’t recall prosecutors or child protective services being brought in to review the case.
“If I felt like it was a criminal act at the time, I think it’s a reportable event. I must have had some reason to believe that it wasn’t,” Kuntz said.
Licking County Judge Robert Hoover has been on the bench since 1996 and approved underage marriages 11 times over the past 15 years, including two marriages involving 15-year-old brides to men in their 20s.
“There are some cases that work out, but most of them don’t,” he said. “Under 21, statistically, the chances of you remaining married for the next five years are slim and none. It’s too young. It’s just too young to get married.”
The role of judges in these situations can be a heavy burden. One of the marriages Hoover granted involved a 17-year-old girl and a man more than 10 years her senior. Within a year the man stole the girl’s prosthetic leg, beat her with it and locked her in their home, the judge said.
Domestic violence occurs in marriages involving people of all ages, but advocates for stricter marriage laws fear that many young girls who marry older men are forced into the marriage for reasons such as legitimizing an out-of-wedlock birth.
“You are not helping a girl by allowing her to be forced into a marriage or by pressuring her into a marriage, or even if she wants to get married, allowing her to get married,” said Reiss, the Unchained at Last director. “You are not helping that pregnant teenage girl.”
One of the vagaries of Ohio law, experts say, is that it treats males and females differently, with the minimum age set for boys at 18 and girls at 16. It’s up to the courts to decide whether an exception should be granted.
Franklin County Probate Court Magistrate Fred Meister called the law archaic.
“I think it needs to be clarified at least,” he said. “If we’re going to use 18 as the age of majority, we should use it as the age of majority and quit playing games.”
Some defend the law and say it puts the burden where it belongs — with the family.
The Moraine mom who agreed to her son’s marriage in 2009 said there is no need to change Ohio’s law.
“I really think Ohio’s laws are pretty good,” she said. “They had some marriage counseling for them. Obviously, we had to go down to court to give permission because he was only 17. I think the law is good as it is now.”