It's the one state that possesses the most lenient law in the nation allowing 15-year-olds to wed, but that may soon change
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In the dark before sunrise, high school sophomore Brittany Koerselman, belly bulging, seven months pregnant and feeling like a cow, tucked herself into the borrowed white prom dress that would be her wedding gown.
The Iowa teen didn't want to be a child bride. But the cops were coming.
She was 15, not even old enough to drive on her own. Jeremie Rook, her boyfriend and the father of her baby, was 21.
It didn't matter how "infatuatedly in love" she was then with everything about Jeremie — his long chocolate hair, his bad-boy attitude, tongue stud and 28 tattoos. In Iowa, a 21-year-old having sex with a 15-year-old is statutory rape. The evidence was alive in her womb.
"I never wanted to get married, ever, like in my life," Brittany recalled recently. "But I did it anyway, because it was either that or he go to prison, like, forever."
So on a cold morning in March 2014, she piled into a car with her family and sped south for six hours and 400 miles from Little Rock, Iowa, near the Minnesota border, to get to the one state that possesses the most lenient law in the nation allowing 15-year-olds to wed:
More than 1,000 children the same age as Brittany have married in the state since 1999.
No place in the United States is easier, The Kansas City Star found in an analysis of child marriage statutes across the country.
Every other state requires some combination of a judge's order, parents' permission, premarital counseling or proof of pregnancy. Some flat-out prohibit marriages so young. But in Missouri, brides and grooms as young as 15 can marry with no more than the single approving swipe of their parent's pen, even if the other parent objects.
Even children ages 14, 13, 12 or younger can marry in Missouri, as it remains one of 25 states with no minimum age requirement, although at 14 or younger, a judge must approve.
But 15? One signature.
The result: A review of some 50,000 marriage licenses shows how Missouri's lax law has for years turned the state into a destination wedding spot for 15-year-old child brides, often rushing to get married. Some traveled up to 1,800 miles to Missouri, from as far off as Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Florida and every other state in the region: Kansas, Colorado, Illinois, Nebraska, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee.
Down in Missouri's Bootheel, the poorest corner of the state, Pam Strawbridge, the Pemiscot County recorder of deeds, has been issuing marriage licenses from her red brick courthouse for 40 years.
Combined with nearby Dunklin County, the area ranks with St. Louis and the Kansas City area as a child marriage hot spot, with more than half coming in from across the state line.
"What do I think about 15-year-olds coming to the state of Missouri to get married?" she said. "I think they're way too young ... but Missouri law allows it."
She is sorry that is the case.
Strawbridge's own grandmother was wed at 13 and raised 11 children. But that, she said, was a past era when young marriages were common, divorces rare and farm and factory jobs could support kids who quit high school.
"Fifteen-year-olds should be coloring in coloring books or something."
Compared to the state's 40,000 or so marriages a year, a handful of 15-year-old brides may not seem like much. Year over year, the number has gradually dwindled from 104 married in 1999 to just 16 in 2015.
But critics argue that the effects are devastating. In a rising wave, they are pushing to abolish marriages of all minors — anyone under 18 in the U.S.
Some 8,350 kids under 18 (about 7,050 girls, 1,300 boys) have married in Missouri since 1999, ranking it among the top 10 states in the nation for child marriages, with Texas and Florida leading the pack at more than 40,000 and 16,000 respectively.
Some 85 percent in all states are girls, most of whom come from poverty and remain in poverty. They endure higher rates of psychiatric disorders, health problems and even physical and sexual abuse. A majority of child brides drop out of high school and rely on government assistance. They are too young to rent a car or even drink at their own weddings.
Fifteen-year-old brides face more obstacles: Too young to drive on their own, get full-time jobs or obtain a GED, they can find themselves dependent upon and thus vulnerable to the demands of their spouses or the parent who might have forced them into marriage in the first place.
Forced to wed
It wasn't Brittany's idea to get married. "It was my mother's great idea," she said sarcastically.
In Missouri, married minors under 18 aren't even allowed to file for divorce without a parent's signature. If their marriage turns abusive, they often are too young to check themselves into an adult shelter.
"The most important reason we need to end marriage before 18 is because it can so easily be forced," said Fraidy Reiss, the founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, a national organization campaigning to make 18 the minimum marital age in every state, with no exceptions. "It is evil to give children the so-called right to enter into this really serious contract before they have the right to safely navigate this contract, to say no to the contract, to be able to get out of the contract. That is evil.
"It's like taking somebody, blindfolding her, taping up her mouth, tying her hands behind her back, tying her ankles together and then throwing her into the pool and saying, 'We're giving her the right to swim.'"
Advocates are having some success. Three states in the last two years have raised their minimum marriage age: Texas to 16, New York to 17, Virginia to 18.
Hoping to thwart child marriages and human trafficking, Missouri Rep. Jean Evans, a St. Louis County Republican, last year introduced a bill in Jefferson City that would have prohibited marriage for anyone under 17. Time ran out before the bill could make it to the Senate floor.
This year, Rep. Bill White, a Joplin Republican, pushed for a compromise to accommodate families who believe strongly that children should be born in wedlock. He offers the example of, say, a 16-year-old pregnant girl who wants to marry her 17-year-old boyfriend.
"What, you're going to make them wait a year so that the baby is born out of wedlock when they really want to get married?" White said in an interview. "I think it's a big encroachment on these two people's lives to say, 'No, you can't get married until you're 17.'"
He now supports Evans' new House Bill 1630, which operates on multiple fronts:
— The bill would prohibit marriages for anyone under 15.
— All 17-year-olds would still need a parent's approval, while 15- and 16-year-olds would require approval from both a parent and a judge.
— The law would ban anyone 21 or older from marrying anyone 16 or younger — getting rid of what Evans called "the creepy old guy that's knocked up some young girl" factor.
State records show such age disparities aren't uncommon.
The majority of child marriages in the state are Romeo and Juliet couples: girls marrying young men close to their own ages. But records show that about 300 of the 1,000 15-year-olds wed in the state since 1999 married men age 21 or older.
A handful married men in their 30s, 40s and 50s. In 2005, one 15-year-old girl is recorded as having married a man in the category of "75 years and over."
Supporters say that requiring judicial approval for 15- and 16-year-olds to wed would allow judges to weed out inappropriate or forced marriages.
But in February, it was that requirement that triggered robust debate on the House floor, with opponents arguing that the inclusion of a judge stripped parents of a fundamental right to determine what's right for their own kids.
"This only takes (away) the parental rights of good law-abiding citizens," Benton County Rep. Wanda Brown argued.
The bill nonetheless passed the House on a 95 to 50 vote and was sent to the Senate.
"We don't want to be known as the state that attracts people for the wrong reason — marriage tourism, if you will," Evans said in a recent interview. "We want to be known as the state that protects children.
"You can't buy Sudafed, you can't vote, but you can get married? It's ridiculous."
Brittany didn't feel ridiculous when she married Jeremie. She felt miserable, standing barefoot on the cold March grass outside the courthouse in Platte City, Mo.
Her feet, swollen from her pregnancy, wouldn't fit into her shoes.
There was no wedding cake.
No wedding rings.
In brief moments when she imagined getting married, she thought that her father might walk her down the aisle.
"There was no aisle," Brittany said.
Age 19 now, she is a 6-foot-2 former volleyball player who long ago replaced her wedding-day ponytail with a blunt, blue-tinted cut, her head shaved on one side. She spoke seated in the living room of her rented house in Sheldon, Iowa. It is a large clapboard that she shares with her son, Jax, soon to be 4, and a childhood friend who is a roommate.
Even before saying her vows, Brittany sensed that the marriage was doomed. Statistics show that the younger one marries, the greater the chance for eventual divorce. Nearly 50 percent of teen marriages don't last 10 years.
Brittany's lasted three.
"I was 15 years old," she said. "I was pregnant. I was still in school. He didn't have a job yet. ... Plus the pressure. I didn't see things going in a very good direction."
Brittany's story is just one of a number shared with The Star. What quickly becomes clear through others' tales is that marriages at 15, like all marriages, are as complicated and nuanced as the brides and grooms themselves.
Some child brides felt forced into marriage to legitimize a pregnancy. Others were trying to keep a boyfriend out of prison, or to flee from tumultous homes. Still more say they married out of young love that has lasted.
"I think we are used to the idea of thinking that this (child marriage) must inherently be coercive or exploitative," said University of Kansas historian Nicholas Syrett, author of 2016's "American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States." "I don't think it's always that. And, mostly, the history of child marriage in the United States indicates that it probably has not been that."
'It was a scare'
Brittany said that it wasn't just that she's in love with Jeremie, "I'm addicted to him."
"I love him to death," she said. "I will always love him to death."
The only reason she felt forced to marry, and speed to Missouri, was because a nosy and vindictive neighbor in their former town alerted police when she was seven months pregnant.
But before that, "we had the best relationship you could ever imagine," Brittany said, and still feels her life was better for knowing him.
"I was never happier in my entire life than in those two years before we had to get married," she said.
She had just turned 14 in the summer they met. He was 20.
Brittany conceded to being "a troubled kid," "a bounce-around kid" whose family sent her from relative to relative when she acted up.
Raised poor — "I'm still poor," she laughed — she had already been sexually assaulted three times between the ages of 3 and 10 by three people.
She spent time in what she laughingly called "the nut hut," meaning residential psychiatric facilities, for depression and occasional suicidal thoughts.
"I've had a therapist since I was 5," she said. "What they say is that I'm addicted to craving a man's love because of everything that's happened to me."
She's not sure the therapists are exactly right, "but I know I'm very codependent," she said.
When Jeremie swaggered into her life, tall and broad shouldered, with a slew of juvenile crimes like arson and breaking and entering to his name, she was smitten. He had come over to chat and mow a neighbor's lawn.
"I am a fool for long hair. He had freakin' long-ass hair," Brittany recalled. "I'm a sucker for bad boys, apparently."
They hung out all summer. But when her mother and stepfather finally discovered whom she was dating, they delivered an ultimatum: him or us. Break up or get out.
"I obviously chose the guy," Brittany said.
All was good for a time. They moved in with her biological father.
Jeremie never physically hurt Brittany.
"No," she said. "Absolutely not."
No matter what Iowa law might have said about Jeremie possibly being charged as a statutory rapist, she never thought of him as that.
"No, no," she said. "I was in love with him, infatuatedly in love with him."
But under the law, that hardly matters.
"The cops came over and were saying he was abusing me and was sexually assaulting me," Brittany said. "It was the same cop who dealt with my previous (childhood) sexual assault.
"I looked at her and I was like, 'You know, you didn't want to do anything about the times I actually did get assaulted, so back off.'"
But Brittany and Jeremie knew that was unlikely.
"It was a scare," Jeremie said.
He is now 24, works 10-hour evening shifts as a machinist, and lives in a house only a few doors away from Brittany, allowing him to be close to her and his son.
Jeremie said he didn't want to get married, either. But he knew what would happen if the police found him.
"Statutory rape. Prison," Jeremie said.
In Iowa, it's legal to marry at 16, but not 15. Brittany's mom got on the internet to find the closest and easiest state for 15-year-olds to wed.
She would ultimately sign Brittany's marriage license, but her father was also willing.
"I didn't want him to go to jail," Rick Koerselman explained. "That would have just put more strain on Brit. That would be the wrong thing to do. A bad situation would have been made worse."
Jeremie would be in prison, he reasoned. There would be no financial help for the baby. Brittany would be a heartbroken single mother.
So they climbed into the car — only making matters worse.
'I missed out on a lot'
Even child brides who were not forced to marry and said they remain happy understand Brittany's trials.
"Don't get me wrong, I love my life. Me and Justin are happy," said Courtney Kelems, 25, who was just starting her freshman year of high school when she drove in from Arkansas to Missouri to wed Justin, then 18, in 2008. "But if I could give advice to young people wanting to get married, I would tell them to wait. ... I just feel like I grew up too fast."
Justin and Courtney have four children now. He's a security guard, hoping to become a policeman. And it was love, not pregnancy, that brought them to the courthouse in the Bootheel's Dunklin County.
In Arkansas, 15-year-olds are not allowed to marry unless they are pregnant and get judicial approval.
As soon as Courtney became a wife, she dropped out of high school, even though it wasn't necessary.
"I feel like I missed out on a lot of our teenage years: prom, just hanging out with friends," she said. "I look back on my life and I'm like, 'You know, I could have done it different.' I would marry Justin again in a heartbeat, but I would have finished high school and settled down and got a really good job and all that first.
"It puts a real strain on marriages getting married so early, not finishing high school, where you resent each other later."
The two prime regrets heard time and again from 15-year-old brides are exactly that: missed youth by dropping out of high school and, as a result, not getting good jobs.
Brittany's marriage to Jeremie went south soon after they took their vows.
"Jeremie left me four months after we got married," she said.
She was on her own for two years, in which time Jeremie had a baby with someone else. Then he returned, left again, and returned. "He's come back and left like six times."
Just weeks after the wedding, Brittany dropped out of high school as a sophomore. She's had a series of low-paying jobs, including one as a clerk at a gas station until she got fired. The family qualifies for government assistance, including Medicaid, and Jeremie pays some child support.
Through all of it, Brittany doesn't regret her relationship with Jeremie, or the fact that they share their son, Jax, who, she says, "is my entire world."
She resents more what she considers Iowa's overly strict statutory rape laws for forcing them into a marriage in Missouri that put undue pressure on both of them.
"Before we got married, I let him do what he wanted to do, be who he was," Brittany said. "After we got married, everybody else was like sharks after a bloody body in the water: Do this. Do that. Conform to society.
"We're not that kind of people. Look at me. I'm not that kind of person."
Jeremie conceded, "I wanted to party. I didn't want to stay home and have responsibility."
He now says he is changing. "Took me a long time to realize where happiness was rather than what happiness I need, you know what I mean?" he said. "Thought-path was just a little crooked."
Brittany's thinking is clear: Not only is 15 too young, so too is 20 or even 25. Her caution:
"Don't, don't do it. Marriage is hard on the normal person. ... It's not like the movies make it. It's not a fairy tale. It's not happily ever after."
If she ever marries again, she figures, it won't be until she's at least 30. Then, if she does, it will only be to one person:
"I have always wanted to be with him forever," she said. "And still do."