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Bride, 13, was divorced in 4 months

By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM
New Hampshire Sunday News

March 11. 2017 11:29PM


Four months after a judge gave permission for a 17-year-old Newmarket boy to marry his 13-year-old pregnant girlfriend, the girl was back in court - seeking a divorce.

The teens had told the court their religious beliefs compelled them to marry after they found out she was pregnant.

"We are 6-months pregnant, and it is important to us that the baby is born to a set of married parents, as we have been taught by our Southern Baptist church home," they wrote in a marriage petition filed on April 11, 2013, in Dover.

"We know we are young, but with the support of our parents and the congregation, we are committed to bringing our son into a loving and healthy environment."

A state law dating back to 1907 allows girls as young as 13 and boys as young as 14 to marry, with permission of a parent or guardian and approval by the family court.

That remains the law of the land after the House on Thursday effectively killed a bill that would have raised the minimum age for marriage to 18 and eliminated the court review process.

According to state vital records, courts have allowed 810 minors to marry here since 1989. The 13-year-old bride in 2013 is the youngest person granted permission during that period.

A judge from the 7th Circuit Court family division agreed to allow the marriage after a 30-minute hearing on April 24, 2013, in Dover, where the teens appeared with both of their mothers.

In her May 8, 2013, order, Justice Susan Ashley clearly had misgivings. "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, by the ... statutes."

Ashley noted that the family court only sees the unsuccessful marriages. "To be frank, this court could imagine protecting (the teenagers) from the emotional havoc from 'marrying too young.' Yet, the court also knows all too well that such havoc may ensue whether or not (they) marry each other," she wrote.

Ashley said "trying to protect and guide these two young people is simply not the job of this court; it is the job of their parents."

All four parents had given permission for the teens to marry, she noted, and she cited their "desire to act in accordance with the tenets of their religious instruction" for her decision.

At the hearing, the couple "spoke of their Christian beliefs, which prompt them to take responsibility for their actions and do what is best for their child," the judge wrote. "They believe that their child should be born to married parents, as a symbol of their commitment to each other and their child."

The couple's baby boy was born on Aug. 3, 2013, according to court documents.

On Sept. 20, the girl, who had turned 14, filed a petition for divorce, citing "infidelity and domestic abuse" as the cause. The following January, she filed a motion to amend the petition, changing the cause to "irreconcible differences" (sic).

The divorce was granted on Jan. 9, 2014.

Efforts to reach the teenagers and their parents last week were unsuccessful.

Judge Edwin Kelly, administrative judge of the circuit court, said the judge's order in the 2013 case makes it clear she was concerned about the girl's young age.

But, he said, "it's pretty hard to say no when you've got a statute staring you in the face saying yes.

"Despite the fact it is 100 years old, it wasn't changed on the date that this case was heard. A statute in most cases will create a presumption that it's OK."

Rep. Jacalyn Cilley, D-Barrington, was the prime sponsor of House Bill 499, which would have raised the legal age of marriage to 18. She said the House vote to "indefinitely postpone" the bill last week was "devastatingly disappointing."

Her original bill would have raised the marriage age to 18, but allowed teens aged 16 or 17 to petition for court approval. The House Children and Family Law Committee amended it to remove the judicial review, and voted 11-0 to recommend it "ought to pass."

On Thursday, however, five members of that committee, including its chairman, Kimberly Rice, R-Hudson, and vice chairman, Daniel Itse, R-Fremont, voted to indefinitely postpone the bill.

Opponents argued that such a law would prevent young service members from marrying their teenage sweethearts before deployment, depriving them of family benefits.

The motion to postpone passed 179-168.

Watching from the House gallery on Thursday was Cassandra Levesque, a 17-year-old senior at Dover High School.

She began researching the effects of child marriage two years ago as part of her work on advocacy for her Gold Award, the highest award in Girl Scouting. It was Levesque who approached Cilley about sponsoring the legislation; she also testified before the committee.

After the House limited debate on the bill and then voted to kill it, Levesque said, she was "a little bit discouraged."

"But then I took a breather and said, I'm not going to give up. I'm going to keep fighting for this bill and this cause," she said.

Levesque said the argument that it would harm military members isn't accurate. "I'm from a military family," she said. "Getting married, when you're in the military, that young is not a good start."

Changing the marriage age is a policy matter that is up to the Legislature, Judge Kelly said, noting the current law "is pretty wide open."

But here's his perspective: "On the one hand, if you were to ask people what's the youngest age at which someone should get married, I doubt they would say 13 and 14."

However, he said, "I do think whatever system we have ought to maintain flexibility for special circumstances and put someone who is neutral in the middle to make that determination, which is the role of the court."

Cilley said she won't give up on changing the law, but the House vote to indefinitely postpone means it cannot take up similar legislation for two years.

"That drove a stake through the heart of this bill," she said.


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