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Family Law Section all in on closing the child marriage loophole

Senior Editor Regular News

Family Law Section all in on closing the child marriage loophole

Senior Editor

Her email username is “forgivingtheunforgivable.”

And Sherrie Von Johnson, who describes herself as “an advocate as well as a survivor of sex abuse and child marriage,” has had a lot to forgive.

Raped by a 20-year-old church member, Johnson gave birth to a child when she was only 10, and was forced to marry her rapist at age 11.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto “At a time when she should have been going to school and playing with her friends, she was living with her abuser, and, over the course of their marriage, she gave birth to nine children,” Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Ft. Myers, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on October 24, in introducing SB 140, that would ban marriage to anyone younger than 18.

The bill — closing the child marriage loophole that allows minors to marry with parental or guardian consent or at a county judge’s discretion if the child is pregnant — passed the committee as a committee substitute 8-0. (Identical companion HB 335, filed by Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami, and Rep. Frank White, R-Pensacola, was scheduled to be heard in the Civil Justice and Claims Subcommittee on November 8, after this News went to press.)

“Across the country and specifically in the state of Florida, we’ve seen marriage license loopholes used and abused to cover up the sexual abuse of young women,” Benacquisto said. “Contrary to what many believe, child marriage is still ever-present in our state.”

Her bill is supported by Bureau of Vital Statistics numbers that show 1,828 marriage licenses were issued in the last five years in Florida to couples in which at least one party was a minor. Eight licenses were issued in which one party was between the age of 10 and 14. Of the 1,828, only 132 licenses were issued to a couple in which both parties were minors. Girls as young as 10 get married in Florida. Adults from 18 to 94 married minors.

“As unbelievable as it seems, these cases play out over and over and over in our state. This is happening. The numbers are real, and they represent the story of girls’ lives that is not pleasant,” Benacquisto said.

“Seventy to 80 percent of the child marriages end in divorce. That ends up leading to poverty, single-parenting, and a life that the girl has not chosen for herself. In addition to that, she deals with a lifetime of trauma of the sexual assault that she has been a victim of.”

Bonnie Sockel-Stone Hearing Johnson’s story prompted Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Ft. Lauderdale, an attorney, to ask Miami attorney Bonnie Sockel-Stone, representing The Florida Bar’s Family Law Section that supports the bill, to come to the podium to answer questions.

“My first thought was that in Broward County, if an 11-year-old or a 12-year-old comes in pregnant, we prosecute those types of cases as capital sexual battery all the time.

“I’m just trying to figure out. . . If they are adults, why are they not being prosecuted?” Thurston asked.

Sockel-Stone answered: “The great majority of the underage marriages are minors to adults. It’s up to each individual prosecutor, each county’s state attorney, to make decisions on whether they want to prosecute or not.. . .

“Since the year 2000, there have been approximately 16,000 underage marriages. And in many instances, prosecutors are not prosecuting the cases of these victims of abuse who are going into the county clerk’s office with their parents.. . . The parents are really perpetrators of the abuse. These children have no protection. And that’s why this bill is so important.. . . The only way to resolve this issue is to ban underage marriages.”

Thurston continued: “I would agree with that. I am just trying to make sure that we are not talking about 17-year-olds getting ready to go off to the military and now they want to get married before they go off. We are talking about adults and minors. And I just find it hard to believe that there are jurisdictions in this day and age that are allowing adults to marry minors 12, 13 years old, who are pregnant, and somebody is not inquiring: Who is the father? And, actually not prosecuting them!”

Sockel-Stone responded: “If you look at the Department of Vital Statistics, all of the information is there. Unfortunately, this is going on. The statistics are not made up. It is a problem and it is unfortunate, for whatever reason, that state attorneys aren’t always prosecuting this situation. But I think what may happen is they don’t know about it.

“Imagine you are a minor and you have nowhere to go, and your parents are forcing you into a marriage with somebody who has sexually abused you. Who is reporting the crime? Because now the minor, who is a victim of horrendous abuse, has gone from being under the control of a parent to under the control of the person who has sexually abused her. So that’s the problem. Nobody is reporting the crime. Now we are going to stop it. Because you can’t get married if you are under 18.”

Fraidy Reiss, executive director of Unchained at Last, which helps women escape forced marriages, emphasized how trapped child brides can feel.

She described how, when she was 19, her ultra Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn pressured her to marry a stranger, who turned out to be violent the first week after the wedding.

Her family would not take her back home, and she was trapped for 15 years in her disastrous marriage. When she finally escaped with her two daughters, Reiss said, “My family and community shunned me, and 11 years later, they still consider me dead.”

She is dedicated to helping free other women from forced marriages, but there are legal roadblocks when it comes to helping underage girls.

“What I discovered is, while we are typically able to help the women 18 and over who call and ask us for help, we are almost never able to help the girls 17 and younger in the same situation who call and beg for help, including right here in Florida, when they are being forced into a marriage,” Reiss said.

“Right now in Florida, children 16 and 17 can marry with just parental consent. That’s parents’ signatures on a marriage license application. And we know that when children marry, the perpetrators are almost always the parents. So this signature is not protecting anybody. And children of any age can marry if they are pregnant or already have a baby. That is so problematic in so many ways,” Reiss said.

“First of all, by not establishing a minimum age for marriage, Florida’s laws right now are in line with laws in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, which don’t establish a minimum age for marriage. Besides, if a child under age 16 is pregnant or has a baby, under statutory rape laws in Florida, that child was raped. We are now handing out marriage licenses instead of prison sentences to these rapists.”

Marriage before age 18, Reiss said, “can easily be forced marriage, and we know that many times it is. Before a child achieves adulthood, and gets all the rights of an adult, which happens at age 18, she has a very difficult time if she wants to leave home with the help of an advocate or get into a domestic violence shelter or retain an attorney, since contracts with children are voidable, including retainer agreements, or even bring a legal action in her own name.”

Sandy Skelaney, program manager at Florida International University’s Center of Women’s and Gender Studies Initiative for Gender Bias Prevention, called child marriage “a form of violence against girls.”

“Allowing children to marry adults allows adults legitimate sexual access to minors,” Skelaney said. “This is by-law sexual abuse. Early marriage has the same devastating lifelong effects as sexual abuse. It’s a human rights issue.”

Allison Sardinas, an assistant at the FIU center who works with Skelaney, said, “I’m here on behalf of my friends in Miami who don’t feel like they have a voice. As some of you may know, Miami, Florida, unfortunately, is a bastion for sex trafficking because of its proximity to ports.

“Because of that proximity, I personally know girls who have been coerced in my own community into sexually abusive relationships. However, because there are certain marriage loopholes, I have seen my friends’ sexual trauma not only to be legitimized but legalized.

“So they feel they have even less of a voice than they might have. These are often girls from disenfranchised communities as it is. So they feel underrepresented. Because of this trauma, we are hoping that you consider the safety of these victims of sexual abuse going forward with this legislation, and consider that maybe they might not have a voice themselves.”