Child advocates and a bipartisan group of lawmakers pushed Monday for passage of legislation to close a loophole in state law allowing for 16- and 17-year-olds to marry, arguing that Connecticut risks becoming a destination for adults seeking to marry minors.
In most cases, current law requires people to be at least 18 years old in order to marry in Connecticut. However, that policy, adopted in 2017, allows 16 and 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent and the approval of a probate court judge.
Thirty-one minors, most of them girls, have been married in the state during the intervening years, the governor’s chief of staff told the Judiciary Committee last month. The committee has drafted a bill to scrap the loophole and raise the age of marriage to 18 as most surrounding states have done.
“It’s important that we finish what we started,” Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz said during a press conference in the Legislative Office Building. “We don’t want people forum shopping to Connecticut to try to marry 16 and 17-year-olds.”
During the event, supporters and advocates described the dire consequences sometimes experienced by wedded minors including Jenn Bradbury, who was wedded in Florida when she was just 16.
“We stopped at a thrift store on the way back home,” Bradbury recalled Monday. “Got a dress really quickly. I was married in my grandparents’ living room to a 44 year-old man.”
Bradbury described her life in the following years as “a nightmare.” She traveled from Florida, where the marriage was allowed, back to Louisiana. Her husband made her drop out of high school and emotionally abused her and, later, her children, she said.
“I was pregnant five times over the next five years. I have two living children from that,” she said. “I turned to suicide many times. I clearly failed, which I’m glad for now because now I can make some change, hopefully.”
Bradbury was able to escape her situation. She aced a military aptitude test and joined the Navy. Later she moved to New England and said she was surprised to find that child marriage was still legal in the region.
Advocates said the current arrangement leaves married minors in an untenable position: bound up in a marriage contract but too young to enter a legal contract to retain a lawyer and seek a divorce.
Fraidy Reiss, a forced marriage survivor and executive director of the advocacy group, Unchained at Last, said her organization has had a difficult time helping minors seeking to leave their marriages.
“The contract in the retainer agreement is a worthless piece of paper, it’s a voidable agreement. You can’t bring legal actions in your own name,” Reiss said of people younger than 18. “When girls reach out to us and they learn of how limited their rights are many of them end up turning to suicide attempts or self harm because death seems like the only way out.”
The legislation has a broad coalition of support. More than a half dozen legislators from both sides of the aisle argued in favor of the bill during Monday’s press conference as did the lieutenant governor and Children and Families Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes.
However, some lawmakers are skeptical of the proposal. Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, questioned the idea when it was raised for a public hearing last month.
Fishbein said the current law could be used to permit the marriage of a military member to their loved one prior to a deployment if one of the parties was younger than 18 at the time. He also questioned why the age of 18 should be the “magic number” for marriage.
“I’m just trying to figure out what is the real difference between 17 and 18 here and why isn’t it 19?” Fishbein asked during the hearing. “If there’s a big difference between 17 and 18, maybe there’s a big difference between 18 and 19. I mean, we’re just pegging an age.”
Still, proponents hope the legislation will not receive concerted opposition. Rep. Michelle Cook, a Torrington Democrat who introduced the 2017 law that raised the age to at least 16, said that policy was a compromise made with opponents who had since left the state legislature.
“Knowing that we still had 20-plus children that were married over the last few years, recognizing that it is still happening, we must do better,” she said.