Texas has the second highest child marriage rate in the country — but that soon could change.
State lawmakers are considering cracking down on the marriage of minors, requiring all brides and grooms to be at least 18 to marry or have a court order to allow those unions.
“This is a common-sense bipartisan bill … to promote the health and well-being of Texas children,” state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, told a House committee earlier this session.
The fact is that not all of these youthful marriages taking place in Texas are about young love — some are about children forced by their parents into marriage with older spouses.
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“Forced and child marriage in Texas is a serious problem … with a simple solution,” Thompson said. “This bill guarantees loving couples can wait.”
Child marriages occur more often than many people know.
Across the country, nearly 60,000 children between ages 15 and 17 were married as of 2014, Pew Research Center statistics show.
In Texas, 6.9 of every 1,000 teens between ages 15 and 17 married in 2014, second only to West Virginia.
In Texas, 6.9 of every 1,000 teens between ages 15 and 17 married in 2014, second only to West Virginia, where 7.1 of 1,000 teens between 15 and 17 are married, Pew statistics show.
A plan to reduce those rates in Texas, Senate Bill 1705, is on Friday’s House Local and Consent Calendar, a place noncontroversial bills are placed to be fast-tracked through the chamber.
There’s not much time left in the waning days of this session — it wraps up Memorial Day — which means Friday may be the last chance for this measure, which has already been approved by the Senate, to pass the House.
Married at 14
Stories of child brides who were married off to older and often abusive husbands came up in committee hearings in both chambers this session.
One story — of Trevicia Williams, a 14-year-old ninth-grader who was married in 1983 to a 26-year-old abusive man — particularly captured lawmakers’ attention.
Williams described how her life changed once she became a wife and mother.
She said she was “not psychologically developed for, nor physically mature enough to handle” the life changes she faced.
She gave birth to her daughter before she was 16. The two were divorced in 1987.
I felt a deep sense of being powerless because of my age.
Trevicia Williams, who was married at age 14 to a 26-year-old
“I was also subjected to domestic violence including physical, emotional, psychological and verbal abuse,” Williams said in written testimony turned in to the Legislature. “Additionally, I felt a deep sense of being powerless because of my age. Within the first 30 days of the marriage, my now ex-husband hit me.
“I asked my mother if I could return home and she told me no,” she wrote. “I couldn’t make the decisions that were required to escape from the marriage. Therefore, I had to wait until I was legally able to file for a divorce to free myself from the marriage.”
Impact of young marriages
In Texas, anyone younger than 16 may legally be married if a court gives permission. Brides and grooms who are 16 or 17 may marry with the permission of one parent.
Nearly 40,000 children younger than 18 have been married in Texas between 2000 and 2014, according to state documents provided by the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit that works to help abused women and children.
During the past few years, around 2,000 youths a year have been married, records show.
Many worry that some of these marriages may be coerced, where parents gift their young daughters to men, some as many as three times their age or older.
Tahirih Justice Center is among those arguing that such marriages can lead to mental health problems, higher dropout rates, increased poverty and higher future divorce rates.
Proposals in the Texas Legislature note that “genuine, loving couples can either wait, or get emancipated, in order to marry, and their chance of having a ‘happily ever after’ will only improve if they do so,” according to a statement by the Tahirih Justice Center. “Under current law, by contrast, children being abused and exploited can easily be made to face a life sentence in a violent home.
“The choice is clear and imperative — in exchange for a minimal burden on bona fide couples, at-risk children will be provided maximum protection.”
The right to walk away
Last week, the House version of this bill, HB 3932, was on the House Local and Consent calendar.
Much of that calendar was killed by members of the House Freedom Caucus — which includes state Reps. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, and Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington — who said they were punishing House leaders for what they believed was obstruction of key bills they supported.
Now Thompson is trying to move SB 1705 by state Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, through the House. The two versions are nearly identical.
The bill prevents the marriages of brides and grooms under age 18 without a court order allowing it.
The proposal notes that minors who haven’t been emancipated — or freed from their parents’ care, responsibility and guidance — don’t have the same legal rights adults have, which is known as “disabilities of minority.”
But once they marry, those minors are automatically emancipated.
This bill moves the process of emancipation to before the wedding, as opposed to after, giving potential brides and grooms full rights to walk away from a marriage they might have been forced into.
If the marriage is not desired, the child would have the legal rights to walk away from the situation.
State Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano
“This simple but effective change would ensure the minor getting married is doing so under their own volition,” according to a statement from Taylor’s office. “If the marriage is not desired, the child would have the legal rights to walk away from the situation as Texas would recognize them as a self-sustaining adult capable of managing their own financial affairs.”
Under this bill, Thompson said, “children will be provided maximum protection.”
If passed, this measure would go into law Sept. 1.