Child wedding becomes a legal loophole in custody fights

Ryan Small attempted to prevent his ex-wife from relocating out of state with their son early last winter when he discovered the 16-year-old had been secretly married off to another youngster with his mother’s agreement, ostensibly terminating the custody dispute.

A few months previously, Erin Carver was mired in a legal struggle with her ex-husband over whether their 16-year-old daughter would stay in Idaho or travel to Florida with her father after learning of another similar “fake marriage.”

Both youngsters exploited a common loophole in child brides laws throughout the United States: it frequently requires just one parent’s consent to allow a 16- or 17-year-old child to marry, and once married, custody agreements become moot.

It’s difficult to quantify the number of minors married by parents seeking to void custody contracts, in part because family court hearings are frequently sealed.

However, Unchained At Last, a group dedicated to ending child and forced weddings, believes that approximately 300,000 adolescents were married in the United States between 2000 and 2018.

According to Fraidy Reiss, child custody is just one of several issues with child marriage, creator of Unchained At Last. In 44 states, marriage before the age of 18 remains permitted.

“Parents exploit child marriage for a variety of reasons and financial gain,” Reiss explained. “The litany of atrocities is endless.”

According to Reiss, children are coerced into marriages with foreign spouses to circumvent immigration regulations, and rape victims are married to abusers to conceal the attacks and other criminal purposes.

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“The flaws in the existing law are numerous, but they all boil down to the fact that a parent is making this critical decision without consulting the minor, and the child has no legal rights until they reach the age of 18,” Reiss explained.

Carver was driving when she learned that her 16-year-old daughter had married an 18-year-old male in a southwestern Idaho courthouse without her father’s approval or witnesses. She cried as she pulled over to the side of the road.

“No child under the age of 18 should marry, even with parental approval, because parental assent is sometimes used as a kind of coercion,” Carver stated. “They’re just small children.”

Carver’s counsel filed a petition with the Idaho Supreme Court last week seeking a declaration that her ex-husband lacked the legal capacity to consent to the marriage. Carver’s case is anticipated to be decided by the court in two weeks.

Carver, who learned of her ex’s marriage plans just days before the wedding, filed an emergency application requesting a custody judge to halt the marriage.

However, the motion was misplaced on the custody judge’s desk, and he did not rule until it was too late. Following the wedding, the court stated that he would have determined that the marriage would have caused “irreparable harm” to the kid. However, the judge felt he lacked jurisdiction because the marriage had occurred.

In arguments before the Idaho Supreme Court, the counsel representing Carver’s ex-husband William Hornish scoffed at accusations that the underage girl’s marriage was a “sham” intended to skirt custody regulations.

Nonetheless, attorney Geoffrey Goss admitted that there was no proof the marriage was founded on a romance. He emphasized Hornish’s legal capacity to consent to the marriage.

Goss did not return a call from The Associated Press. Shawn Breen, Carver’s attorney, said he believes Hornish discovered his daughter’s young husband via social media.

Although the kids were in separate grades, they attended the same high school. Breen and Carver have been unable to communicate with their daughter; however, Carver’s daughter has communicated with her siblings.

“Because her siblings are close to her, she says things like, ‘I love mom,’ and ‘I want to live in Florida,'” Carver explained.

They had a traditional mother-daughter relationship before the wedding, Carver explained. Her daughter was an active adolescent who enjoyed socializing, volleyball, and ordering UberEats; they differed about going to Florida before graduation.

Carver is now concerned about the marriage’s effect. “Not just what it might mean for taxes, health insurance, or scholarships — those kinds of things, those enormous repercussions,” Carver explained.

Ryan Small realized problems were brewing when he began receiving letters from his 16-year-old son’s school informing him of his absences. When the kid arrived for his regular visit, he informed Small that his mother, Small’s ex-wife, had enrolled him in an online school.

However, when Small contacted school administrators, they expressed relief at hearing from a parent. Eventually, he stated. The school administrators stated that the teen was not enrolled in an online school and that both parents signed documentation authorizing the transition.

According to Small, the adolescent then stated that his mother intended to relocate them to Spokane, Washington, where she found work. Small attempted to halt the move through the courts, fearful that his son would drop out.

Small last saw his son on Nov. 15, 2021, during a prearranged visit. After obtaining a marriage license in a northern Idaho courthouse, the 16-year-old married a 17-year-old female four days later.

Small’s ex-wife officiated the ceremony. Small requested that a custody judge declare the marriage false, cancel it, or hold his wife in contempt of court.

The court declined, citing a 2016 Idaho Court of Appeals decision in another case involving a privately arranged child marriage by an alienated parent.

For slightly more than three months, Small’s kid has been self-employed, a term that refers to a minor who has married and is now considered an adult in limited legal settings.

“I’m aware that it’s generating worry for my son, and I don’t want to add to his stress,” Small explained. “But youngsters are incapable of consenting, and how are you to make a life-altering decision for your child?” That is simply appalling.”

The AP could not identify Small’s ex-contact wife’s information, and her attorney did not reply to a request for comment. Small stated that he was looking for his kid, but none of his text messages returned.