State Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel recently surprised her colleagues while pushing for a bill to prevent underage marriages.
"People are going and getting marriage licenses who are 12 and 13, and 14 and 15 years old," Vogel, R-Fauquier, said during a Jan. 27 appearance before the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.
We wondered if she was right.
Virginia law now sets 16 as the minimum age for marriage, although exceptions are allowed in cases when a child is pregnant. Minors are required to get the consent of a parent or legal guardian before getting married. If they’re under 16, a marriage license is issued by a local circuit court clerk.
Vogel co-sponsored a bill that would set the minimum marriage age at 18, unless a court has granted the minor the rights of an adult. Anyone seeking to go around the new age restriction by getting married out of state would face up to a $500 fine and up to six months in jail. She later amended the measure that lowered the allowed marriage age to 16 with no exceptions, even for pregnancy.
Vogel said she was introducing the measure to stop situations in which young children are being coerced into marriage. "We are failing children miserably in Virginia," she told the committee.
We asked Vogel’s office for the senator’s evidence that Virginians as young as 12 are getting married. Tricia Stiles, Vogel’s legislative assistant, directed us to the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit focusing on violence against immigrant women and girls that researches underage marriage. The group, based in Falls Church, supports Vogel’s bill.
Jeanne Smoot, senior counsel for the center, said the information came from a chart the group received last year from Virginia Department of Health showing the age of the youngest person married in Virginia each year from 2004 to 2013. The chart shows:
• In 2004, 2006 and 2007, the youngest bride was 12.
• In 2007 and 2010, the youngest groom was 12.
• Throughout the 2004-13 span, there were Virginia brides and grooms ages 13, 14 and 15.
We contacted the Department of Health to see if it could quantify the number of brides and grooms younger than 16. Maribeth Brewster, spokeswoman for the department, sent us some updated data on the number of marriages of children ages 12 to 14 from 2004 to 2014. We also pulled additional data on marriages of 15-year-olds from the Department of Health website. Those figures show that, during the span, there were:
• four 13-year-old brides;
• twenty-four 14-year-old brides;
• at least 170 brides who were 15 years olds; and
• grooms who ranged in aged from 14 to 16.
In a follow-up email, Brewster said that preliminary figures for 2015 show the youngest bride was 14 and the youngest groom was 15.
You may have noticed that the latest figures don’t show any 12-year-olds getting married during that span. Brewster told us that the earlier information the department sent to the Tahirih Justice Center about 12-year-olds was wrong. The department’s registrar, Janet Rainey, wrote to us that some incorrect birthdays for brides and grooms had been entered into a database.
That said, it’s still troubling that 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds are marrying in Virginia.
Smoot said, "I think that we can’t know what all the stories are behind those statistics, but I can tell you that when you have someone, an adolescent that young, there is a greater likelihood that the parents are coercing them to get married and it is not of their own free will."
She said Virginia is not unique in this regard; her group released a report in October citing instances of children younger than 15 being married in Texas, New Jersey and Maryland.
A Department of Health chart shows than since 2010, most marriages of Virginia children younger than 16 have occurred in rural counties in the Southwest and Southside regions of the state.
Vogel amended setting the the age limit at 16 with no exceptions has been passed by the Courts of Justice Committee and now is pending before the full Senate.
Vogel said that in Virginia, "people are going and getting marriage licenses who are 12 and 13, and 14 and 15 years old."
There’s no dispute that there are children 13 to 15 who have gotten married. But the 12-year-olds are another story.
Vogel relied on Department of Health information to say that 12-year-olds are getting married. That data, the department now says, is incorrect due to a database flaw. Bottom line: There are no records of 12-year-olds getting married from 2004 to 2014. We don’t fault Vogel for that glitch.
Still, her statement requires a clarification. So we rate Vogel’s claim Mostly True.
Editor's Note: This post has been updated to make clear that circuit court clerks are the ones that issue marriage licenses for minors under 16.