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Witnesses Ask Legislature to Toughen Child Marriage Laws

 Missouri lawmakers are considering a bill that would end the state's status as being the easiest place in the country for a 15-year-old to be married.

Missouri allows those 15 to 17 to marry with the permission of only one parent, even if the other parent objects. Also, anyone 14 and younger can get married with a judge's approval, The Kansas City Star reported.

A Senate committee this week heard from several witnesses supporting a bill that would require marriages involving a 15- or 16-year-old to have a hearing before a judge. Marriages involving those between 15 and 17 also would require parental approval. The bill has already passed out of the House.

"Not every marriage is what it looks like," said Jeremy Milarsky, policy director for the Missouri Coalition of Children's Agencies. "This bill at least adds some level of protection for children."

No one spoke Wednesday in opposition to the bill, which is sponsored by state Rep. Jean Evans, a St. Louis County Republican.

The bill would make 15 the minimum age to get a marriage license in Missouri, which currently has not age requirement to be married. It also would prohibit issuing marriage licenses to any couple in which one person is 21 or older and the other is under 17.

"These are young women being forced to marry someone who doesn't have their best interests at heart," Evans said during the Senate committee hearing.

Evans said many of the child marriages happen in counties with airports or near the state's borders, where people from other states take advantage of Missouri's lax law.

"It's hard to track these because a lot of our counties don't track by age," Evans said.

The Star reported in a series last week that that Missouri has become a destination for people seeking marriage for minors, with some traveling from as far as Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Florida.

A fiscal note for the bill quotes a Department of Health and Senior Services report that 195 girls and 28 boys ages 15 or 16 have been married in Missouri since 2014.

Evans initially wanted to establish 17 as the minimum age for marriage but said some representatives said that should be the parents' decision.

Dianna Fine, co-chairwoman of the National Council of Jewish Women St. Louis' human trafficking committee, said Missouri's current law is fueling the sex trafficking industry.

"It allows parents to 'marry off' their children to traffickers and others for a variety of reasons," Fine said. "Mostly financial."

Jennifer Carter Dochler, public policy director for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said child marriage can result in sexual assault and domestic violence. She said advocates have many examples of domestic violence victims who were married at a young age.

"Although domestic violence can happen to anyone, we found those who were married younger or had multiple children had a lot more barriers," she said.