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Should child marriage be banned in NJ? It happens more than you may think

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Goran Bogicevic (Thinkstock)

Nearly 3,500 people younger than age 18 got married in New Jersey between 1995 and 2012 – the equivalent of one every two days for 18 years.

One hundred sixty-three were 15 years old or younger, averaging nine a year. The youngest, 13.

Such child marriages are often forced ones with a long list of likely negative outcomes and should be banned, said Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit based in Westfield that helps women and girls escape forced marriages.

“The shocking truth is that child marriage is legal right now in New Jersey,” Reiss said.

“Eighty-five percent of them were minor girls married to adult men, often with age differences that constitute statutory rape,” meaning the girl is 15 or younger and her husband is at least four years older, Reiss said. “Instead of a statutory rape investigation, a judge is handing over a marriage license. And that’s really alarming.”

VIDEO: Reiss' story of violence, fear, and escape

State lawmakers last week heard from Reiss and others about barring such marriages, though they didn’t vote on the bill, A3091.

“The impetus for this bill has to do with the marriages that come about because of the arrangements in religious cultures against the child’s will,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, R-Union.

In New Jersey, minors are allowed to marry at age 16 or 17 with parental consent. Children younger than 16 can marry with the approval of a judge. Reiss contends there’s no way to know when parents are coercing a marriage, not simply consenting to it, and says there are no criteria for a judge to consider.

Child marriage can be harmful, even if the participant is willing, studies say. A person is more likely to develop more mental and physical health problems, typically ends up with less education and economic opportunities is more likely to get divorced and subject to psychological, physical or sexual abuse.

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“Individuals who are in arranged and particularly forced marriages, but particularly children, are at significantly higher risk of experiencing different forms of domestic violence,” said Nicole Morella, director of public policy and communications for the New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

Reiss – who entered an arranged marriage at 19, then was ostracized by her family after divorcing her violent husband – said there are three main reasons why parents will marry off their children.

Often, it’s religious or cultural. Sometimes there is an economic benefit involved, such as a child married to somebody from overseas so that person can get a United States visa. And sometimes it is to control a child’s behavior or sexuality.

“So if a child is dating somebody from the wrong community, or dating at all for parents who don’t want their children to date, or become too so-called ‘Westernized’ or too wild, parents will sometimes use marriage as a way to control that child,” Reiss said.

The number of marriages involving minors comes from state Department of Health data indicating the ages of people getting married but no additional identifying details such as a county, Reiss said. Summary data is available online, but it shows age groups that don’t specify how many are minors.

Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex, said studies have framed the issue as “a form of slavery” but added that there could be valid reasons to allow 17-year-olds to marry if that’s what they choose – such as an unexpected pregnancy, or before a boyfriend or girlfriend in the military deploys overseas.

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“Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but if a 17-year-old has an unwanted pregnancy – terrible thing to say – becomes pregnant unexpectedly and wants to get married before that child is born, I don’t know that that’s a bad thing, if that’s a decision they made,” McKeon said. “This bill as it’s written takes that out as a possibility.”

Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, R-Morris, said that in his work as an attorney, he was involved in a case in which a woman who married at 16 years old got divorced at age 30. He said he is curious about the lack of standards a judge applies but seemed skeptical about a ban with a threshold at age 18.

“I see around the world the child bride thing. When they’re really talking about a child at 8 or 9 or 10 is one thing. Sixteen and seventeen, probably lumping them together with that sort of abuse is a little much,” Carroll said.

Reiss said “18 is not a magic number” but that people under that age don’t have the same access to domestic violence shelters and attorneys.

“When somebody who’s 17, even a day before her birthday, and I’ve had this happen, calls me and says, ‘I’m facing a forced marriage, please help me,’ my hands are tied and I’m blindfolded,” Reiss said.

The month when many marriages end

“This is a legal contract,” she said. “We’re allowing children to enter a contract, a serious contract with possible lifelong ramifications, when they don’t have to access to the resources like domestic violence shelters, retaining an attorney, things like that that they would need to protect themselves from being forced into the marriage and to help them leave a marriage once they’re in it.”

Reiss said Maryland and New York are considering similar proposals.

Virginia enacted a new law two weeks ago that bans marriages for people 15 and younger and requires judicial approval for people age 16 or 17.

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Video by Louis C. Hochman for New Jersey 101.5

Michael Symons has covered the Statehouse since 2000. He can be reached at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com or @MichaelSymons_ on Twitter.

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