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Special Report: Push for Change to Lenient Marriage Laws Making - KOAM TV 7

Special Report: Push for Change to Lenient Marriage Laws Making MO Draw for Teens

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In most states, if you're eighteen, you can get a marriage license with some special circumstances allowed.  On Thursday, a Missouri senator made a last ditch effort to create a minimum age to marry in Missouri setting it at sixteen years old.  Right now in the state, it is easy for those under age to get the license that can change their life.

Marriage Minimum: Teen Brides.

Two teen brides. One fifteen years old another sixteen, both with differedoesn't reasons for marrying, with different outcomes, and different opinions of the proposed Missouri law that would limit teens from saying ‘I do.’

Shanna Helm had a wedding gown , flowers and a three tiered wedding cake. She was just sixteen when she married her twenty year old boyfriend. She explained, "I was a teenage girl. I was a brat. I thought I was in love. I was gonna do what I was gonna do."  She was divorced by seventeen.  Shanna reflected, "Looking back, I realized I didn't know myself, much less how to be a wife, how to be in a relationship."

It was a courthouse ceremony for Caroline and Noah Hensley. She had just one photo from the ceremony of the couple hugging.  She said, "I was fifteen and Noah was seventeen.

Caroline explained, "We were best friends, ended up getting pregnant, And we got married."  Their parents were divided. Caroline’s dad said no. Her mom who had her at sixteen understood. Caroline said, "Her and her husband from Alabama drove to Missouri and she signed for us to get married."  Noah added, "The day we got married was the first time I actually ever even met her mom. That was interesting too. We uprooted, here went to live down there.  That caused a little strife between mother and I. But everything's been worked out and then some since."

Under current law getting a marriage license between fifteen and seventeen requires only the signature and consent of a parent. Under house bill 1630, the first bill proposed this session, it would take consent out of the hands of the parents and put the decision into the hands of a judge.

Representative Bill White explained, "The judge has to be comfortable there isn’t any coercion, no forcefulness going into no trafficking any component for either side. Whether it’s the boy or the girl to make sure it’s a willing voluntary scenario."  Representative White added the amendment for teens to appear before a judge. But in a last ditch attempt this week, the bill’s author, Sen. Jean Evans added an amendment to another bill to ban marriage for anyone under sixteen. It would take judges out of the picture. White disagrees with eliminating exceptions.

He explained, "Why would we force a child to be born out of wedlock?  When everybody, the families and both parents want that child to be born in wedlock?"

Shanna Helm doesn’t think her mom could have stopped her.  But believes a judge could have.  Shanna said, "Sometimes it’s not your parents that you listen to. Sometimes you need something bigger, saying no ‘You're not ready."

Caroline doesn't think judges should be involved at all. She said, "A judge who is not familiar with situation or age difference shouldn't have a say who gets to live the rest of their life with another person."

Caroline had a miscarriage on their wedding day. But she and Noah stuck with their decision.  Caroline said, "From the beginning, I knew that I loved Noah so the marriage was real for me from the start."  But for Noah, "It was a pretty hard decision but it was well worth it."

Seven years later they have two children together.  Caroline uttered, "Marriage is hard at any age."

And they admit there were years of struggle until she turned eighteen.  Caroline explained, "Finances were difficult cause at the time I was fifteen. I couldn’t even legally hold a full time job." Her only regret, "I think about my dad walking me down the aisle. And restoration cause we are one big happy family now even though at first, it was very divided. The situation has been redeemed and I do wishfully think about a wedding sometimes."

Regrets for Shanna. "It’s embarrassing to tell people you were married and divorced before your senior year."

Both women would prefer their own daughters wait.

Shanna joked, "I told my daughter, twenty-eight. You're allowed to marry at twenty-eight." Shanna urged, "You need to live. Find out who you are before you sit down decide that you’re going to be someone's spouse, someone’s significant other."

Caroline said, "I hope they choose to marry someone before they choose to have a child with someone. But if that does’nt work out, I'll be here. I've paved the way. I know what the deal is. It's not for everyone but it was for us."

We asked, "Would you do it again?  Noah answered, "Yes!"  "One hundred times over," added Caroline.

Bill Changes

Under a new amendment passed Wednesday, sixteen year olds could still marry with permission, but no one under that age. No exceptions. Rep. White will still fight to have judges involved.

Age Differences Banned

They're described as child brides and Missouri lawmakers want to make it harder for them to get a marriage license. The age of consent for sexual activity is seventeen in Missouri. But with a parent’s permission you can get married even younger than that.
While most fourteen year olds are graduating eighth grade or ending their freshman year in high school, for two four state women that was when they said I do.

Looking at her wedding album, Johnna Kay Ballou scoffed, "No one thought it would last. I knew it was going to."

Johnna Kay met Larry Ballou at the skating rink.  Larry laughing reminisced, "I had to walk her home, then walk back up town to get my car. She wasn’t allowed to ride in the car with me."

She was fourteen and he was eighteen when they married in at Grace Baptist church in Fort Scott. They gloated, "It held over two hundred people and it was full."

Despite her mother’s protest, her father said he would stand behind her.  Johnna Kay said, "Actually they helped us a lot and we both had to grow up. That was the biggest battle."

A Different Reason for Marrying

Lisa Gregory was fourteen and pregnant. She felt coerced to get married. Lisa explained, "My husband’s mother, at the time and my mother both decided at the time that we should get married. Cause they were afraid if we didn't that the state would step in and take our baby."

Lisa’s own mother had given several children up for adoption and she didn’t want to do that. Abortion wasn’t an option for her so she and her baby's father, who was eighteen, traveled to Lavern’s wedding chapel in Miami, Oklahoma to marry where laws made an exception for pregnancy with a judge’s approval. Lisa says, "I felt like it was the only option cause I was pregnant. So, like this is what we're doing. You don’t get a choice here."

Now Missouri has become a magnet for those who want to marry young because of loose laws.

Karla Quintana is deputy recorder of deeds in Jasper county. She said, "We've had people from New York, people from Canada, Arizona, Texas, a lot of different states have come in."

KOAM did a records check at the recorder of deeds office in Jasper county and found that in that county alone between 2010 and 2018 there were more than thirty child brides from age sixteen and under. But it’s cases like a couple from Weatherford, Texas who came there for a license where their age difference, he was thirty-two and she was fifteen, raises red flags.

Quintana said, That always raises questions. There again, we are not at liberty to say they can’t as long as that parent is there giving permission but yes, it can cause you to raise your eyebrows a little bit and wonder what’s going on."

The director of the Children's Center and others who advocated for a change in Missouri law say that could be human trafficking.

Vickie Dudley explained, "Where mom is selling children into wedlock for some benefit of her own, for drugs, for a roof over her head, for her other children. All kinds of instances."

House bill 1630 and a new amendment to senate bill 655 would ban marriages between those twenty-one and under seventeen to prevent people from skirting statutory rape laws.  Jasper County Prosecutor Theresa Kenney explained, "Marriage is a defense. If people are married that conduct would not be illegal."

Quintana remembers one case that turned out to be criminal.  "Several years back a young lady came in with mother guy was older." She went on to say they found, "He was busted for child pornography and some other things like that." She said he was caught in Kansas City or St. Louis and investigators came asking questions in Jasper County where they got the license.  A new approach by Sen. Evans to change current laws, would make the minimum age to marry sixteen with no exceptions.  Representative Bill White , an attorney who added the amendment to her first proposal house bill 1630, still argues for requiring teens to make their case to marry before a judge.

Rep. White said, "It's a reasonable government intrusion. In those cases where the judge gets that prickle in the back of his neck and decides they need to appoint a guardian ad litem, it needs to be investigated. That one save is enormous."

Lisa Gregory believes in a total ban. She had to get permission from an Oklahoma judge first. She scoffed, "And he okayed it cause my mom was ok with it."  She and her then husband had three children and divorced when she was twenty. Her oldest daughter, born when Lisa was fourteen, is now seventeen and is like a best friend. But still, Lisa argues, "I don’t think getting married at such a young age is good for anyone. Cause I think there’s so many life experiences you haven't had yet that makes a difference in your marriage. They really do."

Johnna Kay disagrees with anyone making that choice for you.  She said, "Judges may have all the schooling and ins and outs but you don’t know the person inside . And you don’t, no one knows that person."

Larry had dropped out before they started dating but both he and Johnna Kay regret not finishing high school. Still they kept their friends while working at their marriage to make it a fifty-nine year success.

Johnna Kay said, "We didn't think about what could have been, what would have been this. That didn't enter our minds. We had each other and our home. We feel we have everything."

Current Action

The Missouri legislative session is drawing to a close and the fight is coming down to the final day, Friday. Now, a conference committee is deciding whether or not to even take judges out of the decision. Making sixteen the minimum age to marry in Missouri or leave it as it stands which is one of the easiest states to wed.

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