Bill to end child marriage in Arizona faces obstacles - KAIT Jonesboro, AR - Region 8 News, weather, sports

Bill to end child marriage in Arizona faces obstacles

There's a bill in the state Legislature that would ban child marriages but it might not make it to a committee. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) There's a bill in the state Legislature that would ban child marriages but it might not make it to a committee. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Ruby Jessop was 14 when she was married. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Ruby Jessop was 14 when she was married. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
According to the Maricopa County Superior Court, 525 marriage licenses were issued to minors in the past five years. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) According to the Maricopa County Superior Court, 525 marriage licenses were issued to minors in the past five years. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Rep. Farnsworth said he has lots of important bills to consider and doesn’t know yet if he’s going to schedule a hearing for the child marriage bill. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Rep. Farnsworth said he has lots of important bills to consider and doesn’t know yet if he’s going to schedule a hearing for the child marriage bill. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

A child gets married once every three days in Maricopa County, and bill that would end child marriage in Arizona may not even get a hearing in the state legislature.

“This isn’t about prohibiting anybody from getting married. Marriage is wonderful. It’s simply about telling them, ‘Wait until you’re 18,’” said Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Scottsdale Republican who is sponsoring a bill that would require both parties to a marriage to be at least 18 years old.

Under the current law, there is no minimum age requirement for marriage in Arizona. Anyone under 18 needs a parent’s permission. If they are under 16, they need a judge to sign off on the marriage.

[SPECIAL SECTION: Arizona politics]

According to the Maricopa County Superior Court, 525 marriage licenses were issued to minors in the past five years. In 90 percent of those cases, the minor was a girl. We found examples of men in their 30s and 40s marrying 16- and 17-year-old girls.

A CBS 5 Investigates analysis of census data shows there are at least 1,700 children between the ages of 15 and 17 married, separated, divorced or widowed in Arizona at any given time. But experts say the real numbers are likely much higher.

[RELATED: Child marriage is still legal in the US]

“This is not limited to one group or culture or religion,” said Fraidy Reiss, who is the founder and executive director of an organization called Unchained at Last, which helps women and girls escape from forced and underage marriages.

“We know that a lot of these marriages are forced, and even when a child enters into a marriage willingly, the data show us there are devastating lifelong repercussions,” said Reiss.

Children under the age of 18 are not legally able to consent to sex. They can’t sign contracts or obtain orders of protection. In many cases, according to Reiss, they are not even allowed to stay in domestic violence shelters because they are minors.

“You know, it doesn’t matter if you cloak it with a marriage license. It is molestation. It is assault,” said Flora Jessop, who was married at age 16 in the polygamous northern Arizona community of Colorado City.

[MORE: Polygamy Diaries reported by Mike Watkiss]

Her sister, Ruby, was 14 when she was married.

“I wanted to be a teenager. I wanted to finish school, have friends, be a part of my age group. And I was never able to do that,” said Ruby.

Flora ran away from her husband and Colorado City after three weeks of marriage, but Ruby didn’t escape for 12 years. She was forced to have sex with her husband and gave birth to six children.

Back in Phoenix, Ugenti-Rita’s bill to end child marriage faces an uncertain future.

“I haven’t heard directly from the committee chair, but it’s my understanding that it’s unlikely to get a hearing,” said Ugenti-Rita.

The bill is assigned to the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, a Republican from Gilbert, is the committee chairman.

“I have nothing to say about it,” said Farnsworth, when we asked him if the bill would get a hearing.

Farnsworth said he has lots of important bills to consider and doesn’t know yet if he’s going to schedule a hearing for the child marriage bill.

On Tuesday, Farnsworth’s committee heard testimony about and voted on 10 bills. Five of them were bills he, himself sponsored. The committee spent two hours listening to testimony about whether lawyers should have to pay dues to the State Bar of Arizona. It also voted on a bill to ban photo radar, including testimony from one man who believes the government is using it to track people’s every movement.

When we questioned whether those bills were more important than hearing testimony about child marriage, Farnsworth said, “Your comment is silly and has nothing to do with this process.”

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Morgan  LoewMorgan Loew is an investigative reporter at CBS 5 News. His career has taken him to every corner of the state, lots of corners in the United States, and some far-flung corners of the globe.

Click to learn more about Morgan .

Morgan Loew
CBS 5 Investigates

Morgan’s past assignments include covering the invasion of Iraq, human smuggling in Mexico, vigilantes on the border and Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County. His reports have appeared or been featured on CBS News, CNN, NBC News, MSNBC and NPR.

Morgan’s peers have recognized his work with 11 Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards, two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for investigative reporting, an SPJ First Amendment Award, and a commendation from the Humane Society of the United States. In October 2016, Morgan was inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Silver Circle in recognition of 25 years of contribution to the television industry in Arizona.

Morgan is graduate of the University of Arizona journalism school and Concord Law School at Purdue University Global. He is the president of the Arizona First Amendment Coalition and teaches media law and TV news reporting at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

When he’s not out looking for the next big news story, Morgan enjoys hiking, camping, cheering for the Arizona Wildcats and spending time with his family at their southern Arizona ranch.

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