Teddy bears, pigtails, 13-year-old girls. . .and Marriage!


In April, a 13-year-old girl described to a Utah jury the horror of her father marrying her off to a 48 year old man when a prosecutor asked if she could have fabricated having sex with older men.
``There's no way my imagination could make up what I went through,'' she answered, while clutching a teddy bear.
(from Salt Lake Tribune article--see below)

(picture was_not_ part of Tribune story. Story begins below.)

Utah Remains Haven for Older Men Seeking Teen Brides
Salt Lake Tribune--12/14/97--Page: A1
by Greg Burton

The pigtailed girl walked into Sherrie Swensen's office three days after snuffing the candles on her 14th birthday cake. On one side was her smiling mother -- who gave the obligatory parental consent. On the other was a 56-year-old Texan, four times divorced and eager to remarry.
``The girl stood there and hung her head,'' says Swensen, who took office as clerk of Salt Lake County two months before the 1991 nuptials. ``I couldn't even do a regular ceremony. My God, I thought, this child was being sold.''

The marriage so upset Swensen she urged lawmakers to change the law and in 1992 Utah adopted a provision requiring the review of a juvenile-court judge, along with parental consent, before 14- and 15-year-olds could marry.
But while judicial review allowed Utah to dampen slightly its reputation as a haven for out-of-town lechery, homegrown teens -- mostly females -- continue to wed at alarming rates.
Last year alone, nearly 1,000 teen-agers 14 to 17 years of age were married in Utah, including a 14-year-old girl who slipped a wedding ring on a man of 37 and the marriage of a 15-year-old girl to a groom older than 45.
Of the girls ages 14 to 17, 37 percent married men who were at least four years their senior.
Statistics show Utah girls under 16 long have been more likely to marry than boys. A decade ago, only 39 boys ages 15 and 16 took brides. One married a 29-year-old woman. That same year, however, 431 girls ages 16 and younger married. Fifty-six of the girls were not yet 15 years old, and one 14-year-old married a 44-year-old man.
State statutes are failing to protect the hundreds of children who marry because of the strict limitations on what a judge can consider, say a growing number of county clerks and judges. Clerks are responsible for granting marriage licenses and also can perform marriage ceremonies.
``One of the questions I always ask is, `Gee, are you in love with this person?' and they never fail to answer, `Yes,' '' says 2nd District Juvenile Court Judge Kent Bachman. ``If they say they are not being coerced, I have no other course than to say the law permits it and you have the permission of the court to consider marriage of your own free will.''
The situation in Utah was questioned earlier this month when state Rep. Carl Saunders, R-Ogden, proposed and then withdrew a bill that would raise the minimum age to marry from 14 to 16. Saunders said requiring teens to wait until age 16 would help reduce promiscuity -- a stay-out-of-the-sack-or-you-will-be-a-single-parent warning.
He backed away, he says, after learning children younger than 16 needed a court order to be married. But, now, weeks before the 1998 legislative session, Saunders says he may yet draft the bill.
``There's a lot of us that would like to see [the age] raised to 18,'' he says. ``But who knows what is practical and possible? I gather most of the judges would like to see the changes, but even a greater problem exists: If these kids don't get married, they just go out and cohabitate anyway.''
What should be more troubling, clerk Swensen says, is kids falling into the hands of older, manipulative spouses.
``I'll never forget watching one girl skip down the hall in her wedding gown -- literally skipping,'' she says. ``Something is wrong with this picture.'' What's wrong, says Don Strassberg, professor of psychology at the University of Utah, is most young teens have a romantic notion, not a realistic notion, of marriage.
``They see marriage as a way to solve other problems -- unplanned pregnancy, trouble at school or home,'' he says. ``They don't know what they're getting into, they don't realistically know what they want in a partner and they're really doing it for the wrong reason.''
Prior to 1992, Utah was one of only three states where 14- and 15-year-olds could marry without a court order. The judicial provision clearly decreased the number of child brides. Last year, 258 girls and 33 boys ages 14, 15 and 16 married in Utah.
``But now we see more of these girls are coached, their mothers are sitting outside the office,'' Swensen says. ``I've got so many stories of these kids being sold or bartered or whatever -- I guess it's hard to believe a mother or father would sign off on that -- but they do.''
In April, a 13-year-old girl described to a Utah jury the horror of her father marrying her off to a 48-year-old man, when a prosecutor asked if she could have fabricated having sex with older men.
``There's no way my imagination could make up what I went through,'' she answered, while clutching a teddy bear.

Her father, John Perry Chaney, who impregnated a 15-year-old girl, ran afoul of, among other things, Utah's law forbidding girls younger than 14 to marry.
If Utah continues to allow 14- and 15-year-olds to marry, Swensen believes the judiciary should at least consider the appropriateness of the marriage.
But Rep. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, resists the urge to thrust a judge into the marriage contract.
``There are a lot of reasons youngsters get married, some of them are genuinely in love -- a number of child brides and grooms have had successful marriages,'' says Davis, who introduced the 1992 judicial-review bill. ``We fixed the law in 1992 of people coming into the state and I think the law is tight enough right now. We aren't going to stop teen pregnancy by preventing them from getting married.''
Rep. Bill Wright, R-Elberta, one of only five representatives who voted against the 1992 bill, believes the majority of married teens have found bliss, not burden.
``I would be opposed to raising the age, it's totally unnecessary,'' he says. ``I can think of two or three of the best families I know that married when they were 15. So a young man or young woman makes a mistake, you're going to condemn the whole society?''
Wright says the vast majority of teen marriages are ``lifestyle choices.''
Every time clerk Swensen hears that argument she pictures the little girl from New York who walked into her office to marry her stepfather's brother.
``It's just sick,'' she says. ``But there's not a lot any of us can do to stop it.''