By Hannah Critchfield

The couple entered Drew Reisinger’s office in Asheville after a three-hour trip across two state lines.

He was 49, and she had just turned 17. They’d traveled to North Carolina from Kentucky for the state’s more permissible marriage laws, they said. 

It was 2019, one year after the state of Kentucky had passed a law banning marriage with someone under 18 without a court order. The couple wanted Reisinger, the Buncombe County register of deeds, to issue a license for their marriage in the Tar Heel state instead.

Reisinger took the girl aside to ask her questions privately — she’d celebrated her 17th birthday less than a month before, still lived with her mother, who homeschooled her, and had no work experience. She still said she wanted to marry this man, who was her boyfriend. Reisinger quickly Googled Kentucky’s laws – as of 2018, the man’s relationship with her, if at all sexual, would have been a felony offense.

“It felt too off for me to put my stamp on — I told them that they were welcome to come back once she turned 18. I denied them a marriage license, which could have legal repercussions for me,” he said. “They just went to the next county, got their marriage license, no questions asked, and a civil magistrate in that county married them that day. They went back to the state of Kentucky a married couple.”*

New bipartisan bills seek to keep Reisinger or any of his colleagues from a similar situation. House Bill 41 and a companion, Senate Bill 35 set the minimum age for marriage in North Carolina to 18 years old.

The state currently permits minors as young as 14 to marry, tying with Alaska for the lowest legal age of marriage in the United States.

“When I picked up the general statute and I read what the age for marriage was, it was really shocking to me, because I have a 14-year-old daughter,” said Sen. Vicki Sawyer (R-Mooresville), one of the sponsors of the bill in the Senate. “I just felt like that there should be some revisiting of this idea of when and at what age a girl should be married.”

Adults marrying children

There is no state body that tracks child marriages within North Carolina, one of just six states to not publicly provide this information.This data is handled at the hyper-local level, by county register of deeds’ offices. But some evidence suggests that North Carolina may have the fourth highest number of marriages involving a minor in the country. 

The existing data do not include numbers for Wake or Mecklenburg counties, the state’s largest and most urban counties.

In August of last year, the International Center for Research on Women, in coordination with Reisinger, released a report based on data from half of the 100 local register of deeds’ offices throughout the state. Between 2000 and 2019, these county officials reported 3,949 marriage license applications involving minors.

Approximately 93 percent of these marriage requests involved an adult seeking to marry a minor –  not a union of two minors. 

“It definitely corrects the sort of hoped-for Romeo and Juliet myth, that this is just a couple of kids who didn’t want to wait,” said Lyric Thompson, senior director of policy and advocacy at ICRW. 

Of these requests, 241 involved someone who was at least 10 years older than the minor – and 26 involved someone who was at least 20 years older. 

The report and researchers involved did not provide the number of requests between an 18 year old – meaning a person who had only recently become a legal adult – and a legal minor.

Based on the findings, researchers then extrapolated, based on population size, an estimated number of marriage licenses filed in the remaining 50 counties, for an approximate total of 9,127 marriage license applications involving a child in North Carolina during this time. 

The Tar Heel state is more restrictive when it comes to minor-involved marriages than a number of other states, however, which have no age floor at all.

Creating a loophole?

Currently, children who are 16 or older need a parent’s signed consent to get married within the state. 

Kids who are 14 or 15 can marry in the event of a pregnancy – known as the  “pregnancy exception” – but must undergo court review for the marriage license to be granted. 

In these cases, a guardian ad litem is appointed to determine if the marriage is in the child’s best interest, according to state law, with the goal of trying to determine that the child has not undergone exploitation or coercion.

“It’s happening pretty much across the board, in east, west, and central North Carolina,” Thompson said. “What we see from evidence elsewhere is that there’s virtually no difference in terms of rural, urban, race, or religion — only education level is correlated with later marriage — if you don’t have alternatives, it doesn’t matter where you live.

“Pregnancy is a highly motivating factor in the United States, with norms and expectations around, ‘Well wouldn’t it make sense that she’d be better off if she were married?’” she added.

Critics of existing state law argue it creates a loophole that allows abusers to evade statutory rape charges for having sex with children while they are still too young to attain a driver’s license.

“I think there’s this hope that this problem was just going to go away,” said Reisinger. “But North Carolina has been one of the reasons it’s not going away, because we are essentially the place in the South that folks are coming to marry their underage girlfriends.”

In North Carolina, an adult having sex with a minor who is several years younger is considered a felony. But a marriage-due-to-pregnancy exception legalizes these relationships, advocates say.

Over half – 57 percent – of these marriages in existing North Carolina data involved pregnancies that resulted from a sexual relationship that could have been prosecuted as a felony under state statutory rape laws, meaning the adult was significantly older than the young teenager.

In one instance, a pregnant 15-year-old married an adult who was 29, local county data show.

Raising the age

“I think lots of people are trying to cipher through: If a 17 year old gets a 16 year old pregnant, and they want to get married, how do we make that okay, and still prevent the predators who are using North Carolina as a place to justify their predation on young girls?” said Rep. Ashton Wheeler Clemmons (D-Greensboro), one of the House bill sponsors. “I think well intentioned people can support one, and be horrified by the other.”

But Wheeler Clemmons said many people are “shocked” to learn that 14 year olds can legally get married in North Carolina. 

“When I tell people that I’m working on a bill about that, they’re like, you have to be kidding me,” she said.

Research shows teenage marriage is associated with long-term health consequences, including poverty throughout adulthood. 

These disparities disproportionately affect girls, as national and international research shows marriages between a minor and an adult often involve a female child marrying an older male.

Girls who marry as teenagers are 50 percent less likely to complete high school than their unmarried peers, according to U.S. Census data tabulations, and four times less likely to complete college in the future. Women who marry before the age of 16 and do not complete high school are about 30 percent more likely to live below the poverty line as adults, as opposed to 11 percent among women in general who do not complete high school. 

Child marriage is associated with higher rates of sexually transmitted infection, cervical cancer, divorce, unwanted pregnancy, death during childbirth and infant malnutrition. Girls who marry at age 18 or younger are additionally at greater risk for diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. They’re also almost twice as likely to develop a major depressive disorder as girls who do not marry before this age. 

‘A child marriage destination site’

In the last five years, neighboring states of Virginia, Kentucky and Georgia have all raised the age at which a person can legally marry to 18. In 2018, Tennessee adopted a new law that banned children under 17 from marrying, and forbade marriage between a 17 year old and someone four or more years their senior.

Local county registers of deeds, who review marriage license applications, say North Carolina may be becoming a child marriage destination site due to its lower age restrictions.

In Buncombe County, for example, applications for marriages that involve a minor are decreasing overall. But the percentage of those requests filed by out-of-state applicants has skyrocketed since 2015.

The percentage of underage marriage requests filed in Buncombe County that came from out-of-state applicants, as of August 2020. Chart courtesy: Drew Reisinger

“North Carolina is one of the easiest states in the country to get a marriage license, which is great for a lot of purposes, but not necessarily for child brides,” said Reisinger. “We’ve seen this massive increase from out-of-state applicants coming to Buncombe County because their state laws won’t allow them to marry their underage girlfriends.”

North Carolina has allowed people as young as 14 to marry since 2001. Before that, the state permitted children age 12 and older to marry under certain conditions.

Likelihood of passing

Sponsors of the bills acknowledge that some of its language will need to change in order to pass as law.

“Frankly, we have members in the House and the Senate whose parents were married at age 15 or 14,” said Sawyer. “So they are not really excited about the thought of absolutely eliminating marriage altogether.”

The Republican senator said bill sponsors are working on compromises in the House and Senate legislation that would focus on age differences between children seeking to get married and their partners.

“What we’re trying to do though is focus on the 90 percent of child marriage cases where a young woman is with someone who’s a lot older,” she said. “I don’t want to disallow a 16 and 17 year old from trying to make a home for their child if they get pregnant. But again, that’s a very small portion of the larger picture of children who are being married.”

With compromise language, bipartisan proponents hope one of the proposed bills will move forward next week, according to Sawyer and Clemmons. 

If passed, the law would apply immediately to pending and future marriage licenses. 

*NC Health News was able to confirm this account through review of the couple’s marriage license application, obtained by a Freedom of Information request.

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Critchfield is NC Health News' Report for America corps member. Report for America is a national service program that places talented emerging journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered...