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August 31, 2017

Report: State policy technicalities in Pa., N.J. endanger minors through legalized child marriage

Earlier this year, New Jersey’s beach-loving Gov. Chris Christie got slammed by Samantha Bee for not moving forward with a bill that would have banned marriage of minors in the state.

New Jersey, like the majority of states throughout the U.S., sets the legal marriage age at 16 with parental consent.

Christie’s reasoning for vetoing the bill back in May was to avoid “encroaching on religious customs,” but a new report from the Tahirih Justice Center highlights the government loopholes and technicalities that threaten the safety of minors, especially young girls, throughout the country.

“Between 2000 and 2015, well over 200,000 children under age 18 were married in America,” the report states. “The majority of them were girls, and the majority married adult men. Mounting U.S.-specific research shows that child marriages can result in devastating consequences and put young people at great risk of lifelong harm.”

In Pennsylvania, the policy is even more of a gray area than in New Jersey, as the state ranks as one of 25 throughout the country that has no minimum age requirement. With parental approval, the minimum age is 16. Minors under the age of 16 can be legally married if a judge of the Orphans Court gives approval.

Tahirih’s report points out that such policies can make it very easy for minors to be forced into marriage by their families or other adults, or to protect an adult partner who would otherwise be prosecuted for statutory rape. In the case of pregnancy, six states – Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, New Mexico, Ohio and Oklahoma – will eliminate any age floor if the child is pregnant, a policy that could potentially forever tie a child to their rapist.

Additionally, the report notes that a lot of judges who can approve the marriages aren’t required to be experts on family, juvenile or domestic relations. This is the case in Pennsylvania, though in New Jersey, the judge is required to specialize in those areas.

The report also asserts that in the case of judicial approval, the judge is given “little to no guidance for making decisions” in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The report aims to inspire policymakers to tighten the laws surrounding underage marriage, though progress is slow. In June, New York changed the minimum age from 14 to 17, requiring special approval from a judge who must ensure the minor is not being coerced into marriage. Texas also implemented a similar bill in June.

In 2016, Virginia became the first state to limit marriage to adults ages 18 or older, though court-emancipated minors given the full rights of adults are also allowed to marry.

Read more about the report and download it in full here.