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House judiciary turns sights to child marriage bills

Michigan Capitol Building and Gov. Austin Blair statue against a blue sky.
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

A bill package to end child marriage in Michigan received a first House committee hearing Wednesday.

The legislation would close loopholes in current state law that allow parents to consent to their child’s marriage if the child is 16 or older. Kids under 16 can also marry if a judge also signs off.

Michele Hanash is the director of policy and women’s programs at the non-profit AHA Foundation. During testimony before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday, she called child marriage in Michigan a “legal trap” for children.

“They cannot just simply leave home if a parent is planning a forced marriage for them. They could be sent to county jail, they could be sent to juvenile detention, they don’t have that right. And, in fact, if advocates like us try to help minors who are fleeing, we could be charged with a misdemeanor,” Hanash said.

The sentiment was shared by both the lawmakers who sponsor the bills as well as other speakers.

That includes child marriage survivor and executive director of the group Unchained At Last, Fraidy Reiss.

She told the committee she’s worked with girls who have shown up at a clerk’s office crying for a way to not get married after their parents signed off on the union.

“There is nothing that those girls can do, nothing that those clerks in that situation could do to stop that marriage. And with the judicial review process that’s in place with those 15 and younger with no minimum age specified, there are no criteria that a judge is required to consider before approving a child marriage petition other than the fact that a parent requested it,” Reiss said.

During the hearing, some lawmakers questioned whether other bills were necessary to address any possible exploitation beyond child marriage alone.

Representative Gina Johnsen (R-Lake Odessa) said she would like to see other policies tied in with the bills to address issues beyond just the age of someone getting married.

“My biggest concern is we’re going to say 18 years old, done. Good. We’re all set. And it will not solve the problem of abuse, mental illness, cycles of deviant behavior,” Johnsen said.

Supporters of the package said it wouldn’t be right to hold the legislation back while waiting for the state to solve other longstanding societal issues.

Similar bills had been introduced last legislative session. But they never made it out of either chamber of the Legislature.

This year, partner bills in the Senate are currently awaiting their first committee hearing.

The House Judiciary Committee chair said she’s expecting to hold another hearing on the package next week.

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