- Laura A. Bischoff Columbus bureau
Tessi Wright was 14 and pregnant on Dec. 2, 2002, when her mother and father, Donald and Brenda Wright, and Gallia County Judge William S. Medley all gave their approval for her to marry Richard E. Siders.
The groom was 48.
The Siders marriage is an extreme example of what is a fairly common occurrence in Ohio: Underage teen-agers getting married. A Dayton Daily News investigation found 4,443 girls age 17 or younger were married in Ohio between 2000 and 2015, including 59 who were 15 and younger.
Three — including Wright — were 14, state records show.
Advocates for stricter marriage laws say Ohio’s laws are too lenient, setting girls up for failure and even exploitation. 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.
Marriage before age 18 is still legal in all 50 states, though 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 At Last advocacy group.
Ohio is not among them. 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.
“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.
Medley, who is now retired, said in a telephone interview that he barely recalls the case.
“That was, what, 15 years ago? I vaguely remember there was one that was underage,” he said. “I do remember one where somebody was really young.”
Although Medley says sexual contact with a minor should have resulted in an investigation into possible criminal charges against Richard Siders, he acknowledged that neither prosecutors nor children’s protective services got involved in the case.
Montgomery County Juvenile Court Judge Anthony Capizzi also said law enforcement should have been alerted.
“To me the question is: Is there a rape in that situation?” said Capizzi, who is president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. “I can’t imagine a 14-year-old girl marrying a 40-plus-year-old man and that being a valid marriage, not being forced upon the child.”
In Ohio, the age of consent is 16, and sex with 13, 14 or 15-year-olds can be considered unlawful sexual conduct with a minor. However, the more serious charge of statutory rape involves having sex with anyone under 13.
Most marriages involving teens don’t last, but the Siders’ marriage defied the odds. Almost 15 years later, they are still married and have three children together.
Tessi Siders, now 29, declined a face-to-face interview for this story but answered questions by text message. This newspaper was unable to reach Richard Siders, and his wife sent a text message saying he did not wish to talk to a reporter. “He says he is just glad we are together and that things worked out,” she wrote.`
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, author of the study, found that teens lack the maturity and skills needed to maintain a modern marriage. These days, American society takes a more permissive view of pre-marital sex and teen pregnancy and there is a growing recognition that more education is the path to economic stability, Hamilton said.
“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.”
Tessi Siders says she doesn’t regret the decision she made.
“Would I do it again? Yes! Am I in love with him? Yes! Who is in charge in the relationship? I am! Are we rich? Absolutely not,” she said. “I’m in college.”
Siders said she and her husband built a family, surrounded by love and occupied by their kids’ sports, local fairs and family camping trips.
“He cares for us, he always tries to do what is best for our family. He is there when I need to just talk. He does his part around the house. He can fix anything — he is who he is!” she wrote.
After they started dating, Tessi said her parents pressed her to date someone her own age but she resisted, preferring someone more mature.
However, as a mother of three who will turn 30 soon, she said she probably wouldn’t allow one of her children to marry so young. And she said Ohio should change its law to mandate 18 as the minimum age for both parties to marry.
“Yes, some get pregnant before 18 but if the father truly loves her, he will wait the years to marry her,” she wrote.