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Child marriage is "extremely prevalent" in U.S.: "The cycle perpetuates across generations"

U.S. laws allow "horrific" child marriages, survivor says
U.S. laws allow "horrific" child marriages, survivor says 10:36

About one in five children around the world is married, according to a new report from the United Nations Population Fund — and underage marriage is not just an issue in other countries. In the United States, more than 200,000 minors were married between 2000 and 2015; most were girls and more than 80% were married to an adult, according to data analyzed by Frontline

"It's extremely prevalent here in the United States," said Donna Pollard, the founder of Survivors' Corner, which advocates for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, abuse and exploitation. Pollard, who is from Kentucky, was married to a man nearly twice her age when she was 16 years old. 

"My perpetrator was in a position of authority over me," Pollard told CBSN. She said she grew up in an abusive household, and after her father died, when she was 14 years old, she was admitted to a behavioral health facility.

"Unfortunately, instead of receiving the help that I should have received at that facility, I was preyed upon by a mental health technician that worked there," she said. "He was 29, and again, I was 14."

CBS Reports presents "Speaking Frankly: Child Marriage" 23:05

When she was released, her mother, who she said had some mental health issues and also had been a child bride, consented to her marriage with the man when she was 16. 

"This is after having two years of him grooming me and making me think that this was a true relationship," she said. "He ended up exploiting me and abusing me and I did not have any means to escape."

Because she was not an adult, she could not seek help at a domestic violence shelter or consent to her own medical treatment. The abuse reached a point where neighbors called the police, but "when the police showed up and child protective services, there was nothing that they could do because I was married to him," she said. 

"I can't even file criminal charges against him in at least one of the states that's involved in my case because of the fact I was married to him," Pollard said. "The cycle perpetuates across generations and it causes survivors to carry with them such shame and such trauma."

Pollard researched her family's history and found that on her mother's side, there was an underage marriage in each of the past five generations, as far back as she could trace.

"There's no typical profile," she said. "It could very well be correlated to poverty, it could also be correlated to parents that are trafficking their children to get money for drugs. And then in some cases, parents really have good intentions and they don't realize that they are also being groomed by pedophiles that have horrible intentions for their child."

Nepal | The Lost Girls 21:02

There are only four states — Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey — that completely ban underage marriages. Most states have a minimum age of 18 but allow loopholes like parental consent that can leave girls vulnerable. In Kentucky, Pollard helped pass legislation "as protective as we felt we could make it given the current political landscape."

"That is setting the floor at either 16 or 17, doing away with the parental consent portion and actually establishing clear and meaningful criteria that a judge would have to access prior to authorizing the marriage to occur," she said. 

Prior to the change, marriage bureau clerks had no authority to intervene even if they observed that the child did not want to get married, Pollard said. And in a case where a pregnancy was involved, there was no minimum age for marriage.

"In Kentucky, we found a 13-year-old girl married off to a 33-year-old man, a 15-year-old girl married off to a 52-year-old man — I could go on and on to give you these horrific examples of these children who were married off to their rapist," she said. "It's horrific and it has to stop now."

To learn more about child marriages, you can watch the CBSN Originals documentaries "Speaking Frankly: Child Marriage" and "Nepal | The Lost Girls."

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