A few years ago, a gas explosion destroyed Katie Burns’ house in the state of Tennessee. Her wedding pictures which showed the 16-year-old bride were gone. She wore a shirt and jeans rather than a wedding dress. There were no flowers.
She was marrying Ben Burns, who was 30-years-old.
A few years after the wedding, Katie still has no physical proof of her marriage to Ben because, she said, “my sister stole my wedding ring.”
To the United Nations and the U.S. State Department, Katie is a victim of human rights abuse. But what she did was legal and not uncommon in the Midwestern state of Missouri, where the marriage took place. Katie's hometown of Dyersburg is along the Tennessee border with Missouri.
More than 78,000 children in the United States are, or have been, married, says a new report by the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
Missouri was, at that time, a common place for child marriages because the state has no minimum age requirement. Children younger than 14 needed a judge’s approval. Last year, the state raised the lowest lawful marriage age to 16. Tennessee still does not permit 16-year-olds to marry.
Katie’s mother, Evelyn Montgomery, says she permitted the marriage only because Katie was pregnant with Ben’s child. Since Katie was younger than 18, Ben could have been charged with statutory rape of a minor.
“I told my mom, ‘What am I going to do with a baby, and he’s in jail and I have no job?’” Katie explained.
To Evelyn, marriage was not the best solution.
“But I felt at the time, it was the only option,” she said.
Katie and Ben have been married eight years now.
“I don’t care what anybody thinks. I love him,” Katie declared. “It is what it is.”
Katie jokingly admits her husband is nearly as old as her father. And she is only five years older than her son from Ben’s former marriage. They all live together in a yellow house next to the railway.
From school bus to wedding
Fifteen-year-old Ashley Duncan was in her first year of high school in rural Steele, Missouri. She was sitting on a school bus when her aunt told her, “Get off, Ashley, you’re getting married today.” Like Burns, she was pregnant.
But she did not want to marry the 18-year-old father.
“When the preacher was talking, and I’m supposed to say ‘I do,’ I said ‘I guess,’” Ashley remembers.
Neither she nor her husband finished high school. They fought a lot. Then, they separated.
“When you’re young, you tend to believe people when they say they love you. And you tend to listen to people when they tell you to do things,” she said.
Ashley loves her two sons, ages 8 and 9, and is raising them along with her boyfriend’s two sons, ages 5 and 6. She has been separated from her husband for years. But, she says it costs too much to get a legal end to the marriage.
Ashley wishes someone would have warned her about the possible results of underage marriage.
“Now, I feel like I wasted so much of my life, and it really didn’t have to happen,” she said.
Both girls lost their childhoods. Katie says she misses playing softball and not having a care in the world. Ashley misses sleepovers with her friends.
“After I got married," she said, "friends didn’t really come around anymore.”
Both Katie and Ashley were married at the Pemiscot County Courthouse in Caruthersville, Missouri, a city of fewer than 7,000 people. Caruthersville is in an area of southern Missouri called the Bootheel, because of its shape. The Bootheel, one of the poorer parts of Missouri, borders on three states, making it a popular place for child weddings.
Ending the cycle
Before a 2018 law on marriage age, Missouri placed no conditions on 15-year-olds getting married. And a judge could permit children younger than that to be married.
Now, if one person is younger than 18 and their partner is 21 or older, the state will not issue them a permission to marry.
Katie and Ben Burns have a house filled with dogs, cats and even a potbellied pig. The couple’s spirited daughter, Zena, is now in first grade. However, the Burns' do not dream of early marriage for Zena.
“I should have waited,” Katie says. “You really do need to be 18, in my opinion. You need to be grown up.”
I’m Caty Weaver. And I’m Anna Mateo.
Words in This Story
wedding –n. a ceremony in which two people are married to each other
bride –n. a woman who has just married or is about to be married
minimum –adj. the lowest number permitted
statutory –adj. set by law
option –n. a choice or possibility
preacher –n. a person who speaks publicly about religious subjects