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Child marriages in New Hampshire on the decline



Monitor staff
Monday, February 12, 2018

State Registrar Stephen Wurtz gets the same calls every year.

The ones from children living in other states – even other countries – who want to be married in New Hampshire.

“They hear you can get married at 13 here and they think ‘it must be easy,’ ” he said. “But, it’s far from it.”

Wurtz – who runs the state’s Division of Vital Records Administration that keeps data on marriages, divorces, deaths and births in New Hampshire – has to break the news.

Children can only be married in New Hampshire if at least one person in the couple is a resident of the state, and even then, the process isn’t easy.

Prior to receiving a marriage license, anyone under 18 needs parental permission and judicial consent. Those checks and balances are enough to put the brakes on most child marriages, Wurtz said.

“New Hampshire is not a haven for everyone who wants to get married at 13 or 14,” Wurtz said.

Vital statistics data show that the total number of child marriages per year is relatively sparse, and has been steadily declining over time. In 1989, New Hampshire judges allowed 115 child marriages. Since 2001, there have been 20 or fewer performed each year.

In 2017, five child marriages were allowed in the state, and one was rejected by a judge, according to the state court system.

On the marriage waiver application, petitioners are asked to detail a special cause that makes the marriage “desirable.” The law, RSA-457:6, requires that a judge evaluate whether the special cause is valid and allow the marriage to go forward.

Court data shows that most of those who file for a marriage waiver are at least 16 years old, the age of sexual consent in New Hampshire. Only two petitioners out of 67 in the state during the last five years were under 16.

The court with the most child marriages in the state is in Concord – with 10 approved marriages in the last five years. The next highest court is Nashua with six.

Half of the those looking to get married in Concord during the last five years cited the expected birth of a child as a reason for their marriage, according to court records. Most cited impending military service.

“We are hoping to get married so my son and fiancée can be covered by my insurances while I’m away for service,” one 21-year-old man wrote in a petition to marry his 17-year-old bride.

“We want to make this work and have a well-planned and happy future,” he continued. “We would greatly appreciate it if you would give us this opportunity to be a true family together.”

Half of the petitioners in Concord also self-identified as refugees.

“It is Nepali cultural custom to marry early,” an Oct. 2016 petition between a 19 year-old man and 15-year old girl reads.

Abraham Swaray, 35, of Concord knows this process first-hand.

In 2013, he petitioned to adopt his 17-year-old sister Fatima so she could marry her 20-year-old boyfriend, who was joining the military.

The family was from Liberia, and had immigrated to the United States in 2011. Fatima’s mother was sick at home in Liberia, and their father was no longer present in their lives.

Abraham said he had his reservations about the marriage, but had conversations with his sister to make sure the union was what she wanted, and that it was in her best interest.

“Everything was going through Fatima’s approval,” Swaray said. “I wanted to make sure she was happy with it.”

After being married, Fatima graduated from Concord High School in 2014, and moved to Alaska with her husband, Swaray said. She’s currently enrolled in college and working on a criminal justice degree, he said, and has two small children.

“She seems to be doing very well,” he said.

Of the 10 marriage petitions approved in Concord in the last five years, none have resulted in divorce, but one individual who was approved for a waiver last year was charged with domestic violence within two months of his marriage. The oldest age difference between a couple applying for a waiver in the last five years was between a 17-year-old and a 29-year-old in 2013.

The youngest person approved for marriage in the last five years in the state was a 13-year-old in Rochester, also in 2013. She was six months pregnant and married her 17-year-old partner.

The judge on that case, Justice Susan Ashley, said that it was a tough decision to make.

“The initial thought of a 13-year-old getting married weighs heavily against granting this marriage petition,” she wrote. “Nevertheless, this very idea is clearly contemplated, and allowable.”

Ashley wrote in her decision that she approved the couple’s waiver because of “their religious faith and their desire to act in accordance with the tenets of their religious instruction.”

The judge recognized many marriages start with an unplanned pregnancy, which begin hopeful, but end in divorce. While she could try to protect them from “marrying too young,” their continued relationship, or possible break up, was beyond the court’s control, she wrote.

“They can – and the court presumes they will – continue their relationship even if the court denies their marriage petition,” Ashley wrote. “Trying to protect and guide these two young people is simply not the job of this court; it is the job of the parents.”

The couple was back in court four months later for a divorce.

Judges will deny waivers if an application does not provide a compelling enough reason for approval.

A petition for marriage between 16- and 19-year old immigrants from the Dominican Republic was denied last year in Manchester. The couple wrote, “we love each other and we want to spend our lives together.”

Judge Susan Carbon did not find that argument strong enough to grant an exception to New Hampshire law.

“The fact that two people are in love should be the norm, not a special circumstance for a marriage,” Carbon wrote in her decision.

Wurtz said that by looking solely at statistics, the issue of child marriage seems to be regulating itself over the years.

“We’re definitely not seeing a mass epidemic of hundreds of 14-year-olds getting married,” he said. “It’s going exactly the way it should be going – it’s almost disappearing.”