Dawn Tyree says she was 13 years old when her father and stepmother pushed her to marry a 32-year-old child molester.
The man, a family friend, was supposed to be babysitting Tyree at the family’s home in San Pablo, Calif., while she finished sixth grade, and her parents moved to Texas to start a business. Instead, the man repeatedly raped and eventually impregnated her, Tyree said. Upon finding out, her parents and the family friend, likely aware they could face legal consequences, convinced Tyree that marriage was the solution.
“What’s a young girl to do?” said Tyree, now 49 and living in northern Oregon. “You’re not going to push back and stand up for yourself. These are your parents. You’re going to do what they say is best for you.”
That was in 1985, but the laws that made Tyree’s marriage possible remain policy in much of the United States. Although the minimum marriage age is 18 in most states, exceptions to that requirement in all but six states leave the door open for children to wed. In California, a person under 18 can marry with the consent of one parent and a judge, following a review of the case that includes interviews with the parties involved. The state is one of only nine in the nation that do not set a minimum age for marriage. There is no federal law banning child marriage.
People married as children or teens are more likely to experience domestic violence, contract sexually transmitted infections, have early pregnancies, and end up divorced, research shows. As a result, the American Medical Association has called for state and federal legislation to end child marriage. Marriage under 18 also contradicts age of consent laws in many states, essentially giving people who commit statutory rape a “get out of jail free” card in the form of a marriage license, advocates contend. California’s legal age of consent is 18.
“While we like to think of California as always leading, always being in front of the trend line, this really, really is an area where we are failing to lead and where we are failing California girls,” said Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris, D-Laguna Beach, author of a stalled bill this year that would have strengthened requirements on counties to report child marriages.
“Our United States government considers marriages under age 18 in foreign countries to be a human rights abuse. If we agree with that assessment, we’ve got to commit to ending a human rights abuse here in our state,” she added.
Exactly how frequently young people under 18 marry in California is disputed. According to the California Department of Public Health, which began collecting data on child marriages from county registrar offices in 2019, the number is very few. Just 17 marriages in 2019 reportedly involved minors, and counties reported 11 such marriages in 2020. Most counties reported no child marriages at all.
An earlier report to the Legislature in 2018 found higher numbers of marriage petitions over a five-year period in some counties. Los Angeles recorded 44 petitions for child marriage; San Bernardino, 21; Orange County, 12; and Alameda between five and 10 annually. The report did not state how many of the petitions were granted.
Fraidy Reiss, executive director of Unchained At Last, a national advocacy group dedicated to ending child marriage, said she believes these numbers are a vast undercount. A recent study her organization conducted with McGill University and other research entities estimates that almost 23,600 child marriages took place in California between 2000 and 2018. Those figures were based on U.S. Census Bureau data and the number of child marriages reported in other states.
Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the study found that the vast majority of minors married across the country were girls wed to older men (on average four years older). Most were 16 or 17 years old, but more than 9,000 marriages involved children under 16. These included 1,233 children age 14, 78 age 13, and five 10-year-olds.
A Bay Area refuge
Sophora Acheson, executive director of Ruby’s Place, a Bay Area organization that helps survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking, said she and her staff encounter dozens of child marriage victims each year. These survivors typically married between the ages of 13 and 17. Many are adults when they seek help.
Some survivors wed in California, and others did so out of state, particularly the American Midwest, Acheson said. Some were married abroad.
While people of all races and backgrounds can be victims of child marriage, the practice appears to more frequently affect minors from certain cultures, particularly those of Indian and Hispanic heritage, Acheson noted. These young people may come from communities where it’s considered acceptable for a girl under 18 to marry. Child marriages have also been reported in some religious communities, such as Mormon sects in Utah.
Additionally, parents may marry a child off to someone with more financial resources because they think it will give their daughter or son more opportunities. Or, as in Tyree’s case, the marriage takes place to cover up rape. Or the parents are struggling financially or addicted to drugs, and sell the child into marriage to get money for themselves, Acheson said.
“It’s a form of child exploitation,” she said. “Our assumption as a society is this is not a United States problem, we don’t condone children getting married. But in reality it happens all the time.”
By the time survivors reach out to Ruby’s Place, many are severely traumatized, Acheson said. They’ve often been forced to have sex and to have children before they were physically or mentally ready. They’ve suffered domestic violence. Some have been trafficked into prostitution.
Yet domestic violence shelters and services often struggle to help minors who are married, particularly if they have children, Acheson said. Shelters typically accept adults with children, but not children with their own children, she explained. Youth shelters are usually for homeless minors and don’t cater to those escaping child marriage, she added. Additionally, shelters are required to call a legal guardian or child protective services about unaccompanied minors, which can be terrifying for young people trying to escape an abusive husband or coercive parents.
Ruby’s Place is currently setting up two shelters for 13 to 17-year-olds to help meet the needs of trafficking survivors, including those escaping child marriages. But to help put an end to the problem, the laws that allow children to marry must be changed, Acheson said.
“The marriage laws are so out of date,” she said. “That’s the one thing that at Ruby’s Place we’re really struggling with, because we’re up against the law.”
Growing up, Sara Tasneem dreamed of finishing high school and joining the U.S. Air Force. But those dreams were cut short when, at 15 years old, her father forced her to marry a 28-year-old stranger at a religious ceremony in Los Angeles. Her father was part of a cult, Tasneem said. After the ceremony, Tasneem’s new husband took her to another country and impregnated her. The marriage was formalized in Reno, Nev., when they returned six months later. At the time, all her husband needed was a signed permission slip from her dad, Tasneem said. Nevada now prohibits marriages involving people under age 17, but she believes the marriage could just as easily have taken place in California, given the state’s lack of a minimum marriage age.
“My life was literally changed in a night,” said Tasneem, 40, who now lives in the Bay Area. “I went from being a freshman in high school to a wife.”
Tasneem suffered domestic abuse and bore two children by the time she was 19. It took her seven years to escape the marriage, and another three to finalize the divorce, she said. After that, she spent a decade rebuilding her life and healing from the emotional trauma. She now mentors other survivors of child marriage.
Genevieve Meyer, 41, also spent years extricating herself from a forced marriage at age 15 to a man almost three decades her senior. The man lived in the same trailer park as her family in Yucaipa, Calif., and “befriended” her, although Meyer now believes he was grooming her for sex. When her mother and stepfather found out about the relationship, they pushed her into marriage. She left the man at age 19, but she faced emotional and legal repercussions — including a custody battle over her daughter — for the next two decades, she said.
“Of all the things I’ve gone through in my life, trying to untangle that marriage and trying to protect my child for 18 years is the absolute worst,” she said. “That’s something people don’t realize. It (didn’t affect) just me, it was my child as well, who had nothing to do with any of this other than being born.”
A battle to change the law
In 2018, California Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) proposed a law, SB 273, that would have barred all marriages under age 18. The proposal faced unexpected pushback from several civil rights groups, including Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Children’s Law Center of California.
In a statement opposing the proposed ban, the ACLU said California already has sufficient legal and policy protections in place to protect youth from abuse, and that the data did not indicate that coerced marriage of minors is a widespread problem. Enacting the ban on marriages of minors could drive young people already in abusive relationships further underground, and parents intent on coercing minor children into marriage could simply resort to unofficial ceremonies — away from the scrutiny of the courts. Additionally, removing the option to marry before age 18 could prevent young people who want to marry from doing so, the organization said.
“We know from our work with parenting students that becoming a parent is often a motivator for youth, helping them set new life and educational goals,” the statement said. “Denying these young people the right to marry — without compelling evidence that it will solve an existing problem — further stigmatizes their relationships and tells them they can’t make healthy decisions for themselves and their families.”
Once married, minors in California also become emancipated, allowing them to divorce, hire an attorney and access services for adults, the ACLU said. This is not the case in all states.
Ultimately, lawmakers voted to allow marriages involving minors to continue, but they strengthened the review process for petitions involving youth under age 18. Stipulations include requiring family court staff to interview the parties intending to marry and the parents or guardian separately. Staff also must report to the county’s Child Protective Services office if they suspect abuse or coercion.
The bill was a deep disappointment to advocates fighting to end child marriage, including Rima Nashashibi, founder of Global Hope 365, a nonprofit based in Tustin, Calif. She and others said minors coerced into marriage are unlikely to tell court officials the truth. Typically, they’re afraid to defy their parents, who they depend on for food, shelter and emotional support. Moreover, minors in these situations may not understand that they’re signing up to get married or what the ramifications of doing so are. Nashashibi’s organization is now campaigning to pass resolutions at the city and county level denouncing marriage under 18. Although these resolutions have no legal impact, Nashashibi hopes they will raise awareness and create a tidal wave of support for ending child marriage at the state level.
So far, 10 cities have passed resolutions, including Irvine, Anaheim, Newport Beach, Fullerton and Culver City. And since the failed 2018 attempt to pass a ban on marriages under 18 in California, six states have passed such laws, including most recently New York and Rhode Island.
“We’re not going to wait until Sacramento starts getting more energized about protecting our children,” Nashashibi said. “We have hope that our legislators will see the light.”
For Tyree, the damage from her marriage as a child is already done. By the time she was 15 she had two children and dropped out of school. She left her husband at 16 but was unable to get a judge to sign off on the divorce or give her legal custody of her children until she turned 18, because that’s when she was considered a legal adult, she said. She wrestled for years with homelessness and substance use. Now, decades later, she has PTSD and an anxiety disorder, she said.
Her hope is that other children and teens won’t go through what she did.
“The fix-all is to end (marriage under age 18),” she said. “No child should be getting married, period. These laws are outdated.”