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Delaware Expected To Be The First State To Ban Child Marriage Outright

Tom Byrne
Delaware Public Media

The Delaware Senate voted unanimously Thursday to become the first state in the U.S. to ban child marriage, no exceptions. Legislation prohibiting minors from marrying under any circumstance is headed to the governor's desk where he is expected to sign it.

Right now Delaware is one of 25 states that allows a child of any age to get married. And while most state laws require that people must be at least 18, they allow for exceptions, like pregnancy or parent consent.

"We're leaving girls with no protections," said State Rep. Kim Williams, who sponsored the legislation. "I don't want children to have to make a decision about marriage until they're 18."

Kelsey Lee is a family attorney with the nonprofit organization Unchained At Last, which helps people who were forced into marriages. Lee says most of the time the marriages are between an adult male and a girl. That leaves the girl without the legal protections adults have, such as hiring a divorce lawyer.

"Children here in Delaware cannot file a legal action in their own name. A parent or guardian would have to do it for them. We know children who are forced to marry — it's almost always the parents, so it is highly unlikely that the parent will allow them to divorce."

Lee also points out that minors are also not allowed to enter into contracts, so their spouse, for instance, would have the house in their name. And Lee says that very few domestic violence shelters will accept minors.

In Delaware, more than 200 minors got married between 2000 and 2017. In more than 90 percent of the cases, girls under the age of 18 married adult men.

The legislation would also eliminate the statutory rape exception in Delaware law. The state bans sex between a minor and someone who is 30 years old or older. But it's not considered rape if the two are married.

Critics of the bill say parents should be allowed to let their kids get married without government interference. They also raise concerns about the state interfering with religions or cultures that support arranged marriages.

State Rep. Stephen Smyk was one of 11 House members who voted against the legislation. He said the state already has safeguards to protect minors. Delaware allowed minors to marry with just parental consent until 2007. Lawmakers then added the requirement that a family court sign off on the marriages.

"The bill heading to the governor ignores multiple scenarios," Smyk said. "The blanket ban on marriage under age 18 might unfairly exclude couples with legitimate reasons for seeking such unions."

A spokesman for Gov. John Carney says the governor plans to sign the legislation after a legal review.

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Sarah Mueller