A bill banning the marriage of any minor in Florida, SB 140, cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously Tuesday after several victims shared their gripping stories.
Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican filed the bill in August. Majority Leader and future Senate President Wilton Simpson co-introduced the measure following the story of a Tampa Bay-area woman “forced to marry her rapist at age 11,” according to 10 News in Sarasota/Tampa Bay.
The victim, Sherry Johnson, briefly recapped her story to senators, but detailed her experience as a victim of child marriage with Florida Politics before the committee meeting. She said she was sexually abused by a member of her church at age 8, followed by her mother’s husband.
Johnson, who was living in Tampa at the time, was later raped by the deacon of her church and birthed their daughter at age 10, resulting in a marriage between the two in 1971. She said she didn’t have a choice in the matter.
Johnson was able to divorce the rapist following the birth of five more children together.
When asked why child marriages were not banned earlier in Florida, Johnson said, “people are actually not acknowledging the truth — what’s really happening … because they feel there is nothing they can do.”
A similar bill banning child marriages was filed in 2013, but did not become law.
The Tahirih Justice Center, an organization focused on protecting immigrant women and girls fleeing violence nationally, provided further context.
Jeanne Smoot, senior counsel of policy and strategy at Tahirih, said bringing child marriage issues to light was a matter of compiling case stories and statistics, and pointing out the “incredible inconsistencies” between rape laws and child marriages.
She also said Florida plays an integral role nationally for this issue.
“Florida stands to be a national leader,” Smoot said. “There are many states where (banning child marriage) legislation is currently pending.
“If Florida moves swiftly and concertedly now, they can be a national leader on this issue.”
Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, a group claiming to be the “only nonprofit in the U.S. dedicated to helping women escape or resist arranged/forced marriages and rebuild their lives,” shared her story of being pressured into marriage at age 19 by her family — and the negative effects that came with it.
“I was trapped for 15 years in that marriage,” Reiss told lawmakers. She continued that the bill is important because, while her organization is able to help older women, it is “almost never” able to help girls under age 17.
Every other representative spoke or waived in support of the bill, except for Brian Pitts, a prolific advocator at the Capitol representing Justice 2 Jesus.
Pitts explained that his grandparents were married when they were minors and are still together today. It prompted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Broward County Democrat, to ask Bonnie Sockel-Stone, a representative from the family law section of the Florida Bar, for context about child marriages within jurisdictions in Florida.
Thurston clarified that the issue wasn’t children marrying each other, but adults marrying children. According to data from the Florida Department of Health, in 2010 to 2016, more than 3,000 children were married — over 400 of which were married to a spouse at an age making sex between the married couple illegal.
Thurston asked Sockel-Stone why adults in these child marriages are not immediately prosecuted, should a minor be granted a marriage on the basis that she is pregnant.
Sockel-Stone then sheds light on a more sinister, systemic issue at hand.
“It’s up to each individual — each prosecutor, each county’s state attorney — to make decisions on what they want to prosecute or not … really, the only way to resolve this issue is to ban underage marriages,” Sockel-Stone said.
Florida does not grant marriages under the age of 16, but the law allows for a county judge in the state to use discretion in providing marriages to women, of any age, who are pregnant.
The jarring, emotional issue has garnered cross-chamber support, as Republican Reps. Jeanette Nuñez, of Miami-Dade, and Frank White, of Pensacola, have also filed an identical companion bill (HB 335).