March 13, 2017 Elizabeth Thomas vanished. Upon investigation it was determined that Tad Cummins was also missing. Cummins (50) was a science teacher at a high school in Tennessee and Elizabeth Thomas (15) was one of Cummins’ students in his science class. Investigation revealed Tad Cummins had a lengthy inappropriate relationship with Elizabeth Thomas and had researched legal age of marriage before their disappearance. Additionally, before their disappearance Elizabeth Thomas had changed her Instagram profile to say “wife” with a clip art image of a ring. They were gone for over a month before they were found thousands of miles away. At the time that I write this, it is unknown if Elizabeth was being held captive against her will, but as a youth advocate, I am well aware of the manipulation and coercion that an adult man can use against a child to convince them to be “in a relationship” even if she physically was not being restrained. It is evident how Cummins manipulated and groomed the school staff, her family and his own and especially Elizabeth. Husband and wife? Hardly. She was a minor, unable to consent to sex according to her state law-he was an adult who should have considered her and her future more than himself.
However, this story does not differ as much as we would like to think from the stories of hundreds of girls across America. Her disappearance and their relationship brings to my mind an issue that is hidden here in America, the issue of child marriage.
The average age of marriage in Vermont is 16 with parental permission but 27 states do not specify the minimum age for legal marriage. In some cases, the legal age of marriage with parental permission may even be before a child experiences puberty. For example, in the state of Massachusetts a judge can permit a girl as young as 12 to be married. We would like to believe that this does not happen but in searching records from 2000-2010, Unchained at Last, an organization advocating for girls and women who have been forced into marriages found that a quarter of a million of children were married in the United States, some as young as 12. Many states do not hold data on child marriages so there could be children even younger getting married in those states. Additionally that data does not account for religious-only ceremonies.It’s evident that our laws do not protect minors who potentially could have been exploited by their “partner” or parent. This Washington Post article records that “Many of the children married between 2000 and 2010 were wed to adults significantly older than they were…at least 31 percent were married to a spouse age 21 or older.”
How does this intersect with domestic and sexual violence?
When you think about it, marital” sex with a child would be charged with statutory rape if the sexual act occurred without being married because the minor was unable to legally consent. However, with the permission of a guardian or parent, a pedophile could knowingly rape a child daily with no or little legal recourse. Additionally, if the child is young, they may not even be able to file a restraining order by themselves, access healthcare by themselves not provide their own transportation. Additionally “Evidence shows that women who marry as adolescents are exposed to a higher risk of life-threatening diseases, mental disorders and domestic violence, and are more likely to drop out of school.”These children, America’s children, may be trapped in a harmful situation with no way of escape. We know that abusers thrive on power and control. When someone is in a relationship with a minor, there is automatically a level of power and control that the adult has over the child. Entering a marriage relationship the offender would have even more opportunity to use the power and control they have over a child to abuse and exploit that child.
Additionally, what about when a child faces pressure from their parents to marry? What about the minor who has been raped and as a result has become pregnant? In such cases, a minor may be forced to marry their rapist in order to “preserve the family’s reputation”. What about religious sect or a cultural norm which state that a father can choose a mate for his daughter? What if she is forced into a marriage she feels as though she does not have a voice to say “no” to or even recognizes as wrong? Additionally, one can only assume that perhaps there have been situations where through coercion, manipulation and deceit a predator has convinced a parent or guardian to sign off for a marriage in exchange for favors, money etc. (a version of human trafficking).
If we look at this issue globally, only two countries list the minimum age for legal marriage for girls as low (or lower) then the United States, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. American children are not immune to being trafficked by family members overseas with the intent of entering forced marriages. If you think this does not happen, here is an interview with two girls who were brought by their fathers to their respective countries of origin with the intent of marrying them off. Additionally, in some countries, many young girls may be forced to become “common law brides” long before they reach the age of legal marriage then be forced to marry the person they had been with. Other countries, cultures and customs do not have adequate requirements to provide documentation which would prove a minor is underage. That said, I am aware that we can do very little about what happens overseas but it is our responsibility to protect children in our country.
A child, in the United states who may have not have even completed middle school, of whom many of their peers are stressed about tests or playing Pokemon Go may be forced to marry a someone they do not love.