Vernon County and Missouri’s new marriage law
On July 13, Governor Mike Parson signed legislation which raises the marriage age in Missouri to 16. Until that new law takes effect on Aug. 28, there is no minimum age to receive a marriage license in the state of Missouri.
At present, those between ages 15 to 18 can wed with a signature of one parent, while children 14 or younger need permission from a parent and judge.
Said Shelly Baldwin, chief deputy in the Vernon County Recorder of Deeds Office, “In my 25 years, we’ve only ever had one that the judge had to sign and she was 14 but she actually turned 15 a couple of days after he signed.”
She said the groom was “young” too and thought this took place about 20 years ago. And yes, there was a pregnancy.
Beyond raising the minimum age, the new law removes the discretion for the court to issue a license to anyone under age 16. Further, the bill states that no license can be issued for the marriage of a person 21 years or older if the other party is less than 17 years of age.
This legislation also seeks to have a small impact on the problem of human trafficking. A separate bill to combat human trafficking was the first piece of legislation passed by the General Assembly in the 2017-2018 session and it was the first signed into law by the governor.
The legislation, mandating the creation of anti-human trafficking posters was authored by state house district 126 Rep. Patricia Pike, R-Adrian, which will be placed in motels, truck stops and other locations to alert people to the dangers of human trafficking and how to get help.
While in Nevada on Saturday morning for another event, Pike said, “This marriage legislation is vitally important to help prevent child marriages that are used to disguise abusive situations and human trafficking.”
The bill’s principal sponsor, Rep. Jean Evans, R-Manchester, issued a statement which in part said, “This is a huge victory in our effort to protect young people and end the state’s reputation as the easiest place in the country for a 15-year-old to be married.”
Her statement went on to note, “We have been mindful to respect parental and religious rights, but our goal is to ensure no child is put in a dangerous situation because of our marriage laws. This new law will make our state safer for young people.”
A background piece for this legislation noted “how easy it is to take advantage of Missouri’s current law and use it to exploit children – children who can’t even legally give consent for sex.”
As Pike noted, child marriage is an avenue used for human trafficking; it allows parents to “marry-off” their children to traffickers and others for a variety of reasons, mostly financial.
Pike noted how such marriages involve abusive situations, have lower educational attainment, higher rates of poverty and are more likely to experience abuse.
“And think of the children who are born into such marriages; they’re the most vulnerable and this legislation helps them as well,” said Pike.
Research by the Kansas City Star newspaper revealed that, since 1999, more than 1,000 children who were 15-years-old have married in Missouri.
With most such under age-18 marriages taking place in border areas, Baldwin was asked about her experience in Vernon County.
She said, “While the vast majority of marriage license applications are by local couples in Vernon County or El Dorado Springs, we do have some every year stop in as they travel to Branson or Lake of the Ozarks and obtain their marriage license.”
According to data provided along with the bill, twenty-five 16-year-old and nine 15-year-old brides married in Missouri in 2017. The year prior, there were twenty-two 16-year-old brides and twenty-one aged 15 who married, with five grooms who were 16 or younger.
“The ones I worry about are the – well, they’re really children – the young brides who I’ve heard stories of who are sometimes forced to marry a rapist or abuser,” said Baldwin, who quickly added she was not aware of that situation in Vernon County.
She spoke of how some of the really young ones who marry have to drop out of school, whether due to the pregnancy or to find a job.
Said Baldwin, “And think of this, if they’re being abused by their spouses, child brides cannot go to a women’s shelter or file for divorce because they are not considered an adult.”
Asked further about those under age-18 in Vernon County, Baldwin recalled “two or three cases” of a 30-year-old man marrying a 15- or 16-year-old girl.
“But honestly, it is not common here like you would think,” she said.
The deputy recorder added, “Yeah, we have a lot of 25ish marrying 18-year-olds, but honestly, even in just the last couple of years I feel like even the ones who have to have a parent sign for them – those that were under 18 – has drastically gone down; we don’t have as many.”
“The biggest reason we have out of area people is because the bride was raised here or grandma and grandpa still live her,” said Vernon County Recorder of Deeds Doug Shupe.
The volume of marriage licenses obtained in the Vernon County office has remained steady over the years at about 165-175.
Looking over at Baldwin, Shupe said the biggest change was the elimination of the three-day waiting period which occurred in August 2001.
While only Montana still requires a blood test or signing a consent waiver prior to granting a marriage license (testing the female for Rubella immunity) many states, such as Missouri, used to require a blood test to determine if the rhesus (Rh) factor of the bride and groom were different (one positive, one negative).
Explaining why Missouri abolished its blood test Shupe said, “Now, if there’s a problem, the doctor can just give the mom a shot and that takes care of the problem.”
Baldwin immediately added, “Even though the waiting period [for test results] was just three-days, I think that was so helpful in getting some brides, and a few grooms too, to stop and ask themselves if they really want to get married or marry that person. I wish Missouri still had the waiting period.”
Shupe reports still seeing a fair number of older men marrying young women but Baldwin recalls only two 35-year-old men marrying very young but not under-age women.
Former Gov. Eric Greitens did not sign the measure before he resigned in May, leaving it up to his successor.
The new law places Missouri among an ever-increasing number of states adopting stricter child marriage laws.
In May, Delaware became the first state in the nation to ban child marriage — anyone under 18 — altogether, with no exceptions. New Jersey followed in June. In the last two years, Virginia and Texas outlawed marriages under age 18, unless the children have been legally emancipated. New York last year made 17 the minimum age.
Under the old law and under the new, “You have to come in together,” began Baldwin. “And each has to bring your driver license or your birth certificate. You have to know your Social Security number and if it’s not your first marriage, we have to have the end date of your last marriage.
In Vernon County, the cost of a marriage license is $51.00, which has to be paid in cash. The license must be used within 30 days. If there is delay beyond that time, the license must be returned and a new one has to be issued.
And as to the new Missouri legislation Baldwin added, “This is a good law and I think the General Assembly and governor did wonderful on this one.”