Rep. Carol Ode, D-Burlington, is sponsoring a bill that would move the legal age for all marriages in Vermont to 18 years old. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Aubrey Weaver is a reporter with Community News Service, part of the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.

A new bill would move the legal age for all marriages in Vermont to 18 years old, the age of consent, mirroring moves in other state legislatures this year to ban child marriage. Under existing law, minors 16 years of age and older can legally marry in Vermont with the written consent of one parent.

“Children need to grow up safe and strong, educated and ready for the future,” Rep. Carol Ode, D-Burlington, the sponsor of the bill, told the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 16. “They deserve to be free from marriage before they grow up.”

If the bill, H.148, is passed, Vermont would be only the seventh state to ban child marriage, joining neighboring New York and Massachusetts in doing so. 

“What we don’t want is for Vermont to become a destination state for child marriage,” said Marcie Hambrick, director of research and programs for child sexual abuse at the nonprofit Prevent Child Abuse Vermont. “I don’t think that’s what our state is about.” 

The U.S. State Department labels forced marriages, especially involving minors, as a human rights abuse. Yet, child marriage remains legal in 43 states, some of which have no minimum age to marry at all.

This isn’t the first time the Legislature has considered measures to raise the legal age of marriage. Last year, Ode sponsored H.631, a bill that would have raised the marriage age to 18, but the measure timed out in committee.

Just under 300 children were married in Vermont between 2000 and 2021, 80% of whom were girls, according to data from the Vermont Commission on Women

Cary Brown, the commission’s executive director, explained to the judiciary committee on Feb. 16 that the common perception of child marriage being only between two teenagers is not always true. Almost half of the Vermont girls married underage were married to individuals four or more years older than them, typically grown men. 

The commission ran an equity impact assessment on the policy to ensure it wasn’t negligent of any traditional cultural practices, especially with Vermont increasingly becoming a destination for migrants. The assessment found no adverse impacts on a racial or cultural level. Most of the victims of child marriage in the state were white, rural, lower-income girls, according to the assessment. 

Brown shared national-level statistics with the committee about the benefits of raising the legal age. Women who wait until 18 years or older to marry are far more likely to graduate high school, attend and graduate college and are less likely to live in poverty, Brown said. Girls who marry before 18, on the other hand, are much more likely to be physically abused and suffer significantly higher health risks than those who marry in adulthood, Brown said. 

The Vermont Medical Society submitted a letter to the committee in favor of the bill as well. 

Also at the Feb. 16 hearing was Fraidy Reiss, a child marriage survivor and founder of the Unchained at Last nonprofit. She shared her personal experience being a child bride. 

“I’m not going to sit here and argue that you wake up on your 18th birthday with newfound wisdom and maturity and the ability to choose a life partner,” Reiss said. “That’s absurd. But you do wake up on your 18th birthday magically with the rights of adulthood, and those rights are crucial to navigating any contract, especially a contract as serious as marriage.” 

Both Ode and Reiss outlined the harmful nature of the parental waiver loophole currently in place. “What we call parental consent is often parental coercion, and the law does not provide any legal recourse for a teen who doesn’t want to marry,” Reiss said. “If their parent — only one parent — signs the form that marriage is going forth.” 

Why would a parent do such a thing? In Reiss’ experiences with survivors, she said, sometimes it is a means for a parent to skirt paying child support or to avoid custody battles. 

Underage marriage is also a way for the of-age spouse to circumvent statutory rape laws. Unmarried, a minor is not legally able to consent to sex with an adult, but the line is blurred legally when marriage is involved. Research done in 2022 by McGill University found between about 35,000 and 40,200 U.S. marriages since 2000 occurred at an age or with a spousal age difference that should have constituted a sex crime under the relevant state’s law.

Vermont’s proposed bill wouldn’t nullify any existing underage marriages and is proposed to take effect July 1 of this year. 

Rep. Joseph Andriano, D-Orwell, said during the hearing earlier this month he wasn’t sure why legislators needed to wait so long. 

“I don’t understand why the effective date was chosen, given everything we just heard and sort of the importance of this issue,” he said. “To me it seems like (it should be) effective on passage.” That’s one thing that might be revised in the future of H.148.