The North Carolina girl never intended to be in this situation.
Pregnant at 15.
Marrying the 17-year-old father.
But it was 1996.
And the girl lived in Eden, a conservative town bordering Virginia, with a population around 15,000 and a community that believed the only thing a girl could do in this situation was take responsibility for becoming pregnant and make it right.
“It was very shaming and very uncomfortable,” said the girl, now a 40-year-old woman.
Agreeing to marry the father, court documents show, led to years of abuse, which she’s still trying to escape.
And her experience is being repeated with teenagers in North Carolina today.
Child marriages in North Carolina
Under North Carolina law, 14- or 15-year-olds can marry if they become pregnant and 16- or 17-year-olds can marry with a parent’s permission.
North Carolina and Alaska are the only two states that allow 14-year-olds to marry.
Some North Carolina lawmakers want to stop this from happening and have said that allowing minors to marry has made the state a destination for child trafficking.
That is why the woman from Eden is allowing her story to be used by the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that helps victims of abuse and is advocating for change in North Carolina’s child marriage laws.
If North Carolina had banned child marriages, she said, it could have prevented abuse and control that she’s still trying to escape after leaving her marriage of 17 years.
But before her story became public lawmakers balked, making her wonder if telling her story was worth the pain of reliving the experience.
Sen. Danny Britt, a Lumberton Republican, said his colleagues have told him they support the intent behind the original bill draft, which would have banned all child marriages, but couldn’t vote to pass it because they either married as minors, married a minor or know someone who married as a minor.
At one point, it looked like the best legislators would do for the state’s teenagers was to bring the law in line with the state’s statutory rape laws and allow 14- to 17-year-olds only to marry someone less than four years older.
But in a last-minute effort to push it through the Senate, Britt changed the bill so that children younger than 16 couldn’t marry and those 16 and 17 couldn’t marry anyone more than four years older.
The Senate agreed to that change but the bill stalled again in the House. A House bill that mirrored Britt’s original version hasn’t moved at all.
The woman from Eden told The News & Observer that she believes telling her story could help other teenagers.
“If I had heard someone say they went through this and this is what it was like, why it’s not a good idea, and actually spoke some wisdom and truth into my situation, my experience, I can’t imagine what a profound difference that would have been in my life,” she said.
Only once has she spoken publicly about her marriage and the abuse described in court records that led to a domestic violence protective order. She was immediately threatened and her story was removed from public domains.
She agreed to tell her story to The News & Observer on condition of anonymity.
Most of her eight children still live in her home. They range in age from 9 to mid-20s, and there is an ongoing custody battle between her and her ex-husband. She fears for her safety.
“It’s so hard because my ex-husband, my abuser, is still in my life and still in my kids’ life,” she said. “I know what it feels like to be helpless and afraid and to do everything from a basis of fear — and I can imagine that there are a lot of people who feel that way.”
They met when the woman was a freshman at Morehead High School in Eden. She was living at home with her mother and stepfather. She was 14, her boyfriend 16.
A year later, at three months pregnant and 15 years old, the girl had “a shotgun wedding” to her then 17-year-old boyfriend.
“We were immediately on welfare,” she said.
The News & Observer obtained a copy of her marriage certificate to confirm the marriage and the ages of the bride and groom.
North Carolina laws allowed her mother to sign her daughter’s marriage certificate and essentially emancipate her.
Casey Swegman, of Tahirih Justice Center, said in North Carolina and some other states, even if a girl becomes emancipated, if she is married, she is treated as if her husband is her guardian.
Swegman said that that happens by default as people look for an adult in the room, even if the husband is underage, as well.
And the Eden woman’s husband turned 18 within seven months of their marriage.
Because of this, she says she couldn’t go to medical appointments by herself, she needed his permission to be on birth control, which he denied, and she couldn’t sign for utilities, rent an apartment or get a driver’s license without his approval.
Her family, having already planned to move to more than five hours away, left her in North Carolina with her new husband.
She said she wasn’t sorry to leave their home. But she wasn’t prepared for what she was about to face.
“It was an ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ situation where I had no say in my life anymore,” she said. “I was controlled and everything that I did and where I went and who I talked to was controlled by my husband, who was only two years older than me, but he controlled everything.”
She told The News & Observer that her husband wanted her to drop out of school like he did. She said she would jump out of windows to sneak to the high school.
At the high school she was put into a cohort of a handful of expecting mothers and they were taught parenting skills.
Her first son was born in March 1997, just before her 16th birthday.
A roller-coaster relationship
The marriage wasn’t always bad.
She said it went back and forth between short honeymoon phases and the abuse described in court records .
“I wanted to be happy,” she said. “I did everything that I could to try to make him happy, have a good relationship. I can remember that.”
She said her life consisted of going to school, taking care of their house and raising their son.
Then she got pregnant again.
Outside of work, church and school, she was isolated from the community.
But she said that didn’t stop her from feeling the sting of the community’s judgment, in her small Southern town, against a high school student with two children shopping for groceries.
Asking for help was out of the question.
Even her doctor left her feeling ashamed. And the few times she tried to share what was happening in her home life, she said, her husband was in the room and she would be met with abuse back home.
According to court documents reviewed by The News & Observer, the Eden woman testified before a family court in 2015 about the conditions of her marriage. The court found that the husband controlled their finances, kept his wife from working, spending money or attending college.
She told The News & Observer that speaking up for herself during the marriage “terrified” her.
”It would turn into fights and violence at home and I just began shrinking as a person, to kind of keep the peace,” she said. “So I didn’t have a lot of interaction with the community at large.”
According to the court records, a judge found her husband had been abusive toward her.
Court records confirmed that the woman wasn’t allowed to have a career during her marriage and mostly worked odd jobs. The husband controlled her money, forced her to drop out of college and stole from her after their marriage ended.
After a domestic violence protective order was issued he repeatedly told her children that she deserved a bullet to the head, the court found.
Breaking the cycle
The couple stayed together for 17 years. They had seven children and took in an eighth.
During the marriage she said she would ask him to go to counseling but he would refuse.
Housing and job instability left the couple moving often and eventually leaving North Carolina altogether.
They didn’t have their final child until she turned 30. At the time they were living in a single-wide trailer, with three people in each bedroom, and were homeschooling the kids.
She said one weekend while he was out of town she learned they were five months behind on their house payments and were about to be foreclosed on.
“At that point I had eight babies, no money to my name and was looking at being homeless,” she said.
Planning an escape
Over the years, she had seen signs and pamphlets around town that would tell her how to reach out and ask for help, but she was always too scared.
But she said one especially bad night of abuse pushed her to a breaking point.
She is not the type of person to do something without a plan. She took weekly trips to the library to let her kids pick out books, and now she used that time to research how to get away.
She searched for domestic violence shelters.
She searched for what she needed to take when she left.
She began stockpiling money, gathering important documents like birth certificates for her children and Social Security cards.
She saw her parents once or twice a year and eventually they caught on to what their daughter was going through. At the time they encouraged her to leave him.
On one of their visits she gave her mother some of the documents she had collected, and her mother gave her a secret phone to use for an emergency.
She did everything she could to make a plan before leaving.
But he found out.
He filed a domestic violence complaint against his wife, court records confirm.
He ended up with emergency custody of their children and she was removed from the home.
“I graduated in 1999,” she said. “It was 2012. I didn’t go to college, didn’t have a job, didn’t have any money and didn’t have anywhere to go. He was using the system meant to protect people who are in abusive relationships to teach me a lesson and say, ‘Hey I have all the power in this situation.’”
She said at that moment he was making good on a promise he had made throughout their marriage: that if she crossed him he would leave and leave her with nothing.
She ended up making an hour-and-a-half trip to her parents’ home — both she and her parents had moved away from North Carolina during her marriage.
She reached out to domestic violence shelters in various counties but none would take her in since she was not in her county of residence.
She traveled back to ask the court for an emergency protective order against her husband, court records confirm. Her parents let her stay with them for the week and a half before her court date.
The judge agreed to hear their cases together.
“The judge saw that he had an attorney and I had nothing,” she said. “I literally had nothing.”
The judge said she had one week to find an attorney.
“I was a crying mess,” she said. “I had no control over my emotions at the time.”
She reached out to a domestic violence advocate who met her at the courthouse. Then they got in touch with legal aid to find a lawyer to represent her in the hearing.
She said the judge asked her husband if he was scared of her.
“He said, ‘I’m not afraid of her. She can’t hurt me,’” the woman recalled. “That’s what got his case dismissed.”
Court records confirm the judge did dismiss his domestic violence order against her.
The judge turned the question to her. She said she told the judge about the abuse she endured and that she feared he would do it again.
The judge granted the Eden woman custody over their children, with the father getting them on weekends, according to court records.
The judge also allowed the woman to move back into her house and granted her a one-year domestic violence protective order. The order prevented her husband from contracting her, being within 500 feet of her or her house and damaging or getting rid of her property.
Both she and her husband were ordered not to discuss the case with their children.
He was also ordered to leave the house.
But when she got there all the bills, cars and their home were in her husband’s name.
She had no way to travel, no money and no phones.
“It was like starting over,” she said.
And her ex-husband didn’t let her forget about him.
She said over the years he continued to threaten and intimidate her.
In court records a judge wrote that her husband admitted to the abuse and was sentenced to 179 days in jail, though the sentence was suspended if he obeyed the judge’s orders.
Court records show that a judge found him in contempt several years later after he stole food, diapers and electronics, among other things, from her house and told her children that she deserved to be shot in the head.
“I was afraid that he was going to come to the house and shoot me and there was really nothing stopping him from doing that,” she said.
In the midst of everything she began attending a church that helped support her and her children. Charities gave money to the family as well.
Her ex-husband was ordered to help his family financially, court records confirm.
She began seeing a counselor.
“She asked me the one thing that no one had ever asked me in 32 years,” she said. “She was like, ‘What is your dream? What did you always want to do with your life?’”
She wanted to be a lawyer but could come up with 1,000 reasons that that wasn’t possible. Her children, their education, their care and the money alone would stop her.
“I was like, nobody ever asked me or thought I could do anything with my life other than pop out babies, you know — be barefoot and pregnant and take care of this guy,” she said.
She told her counselor she couldn’t pursue her dreams until she had her family and the situation with her ex in a more stable place.
Her counselor looked at her and said, “I believe in you, you are so strong and I believe that you can do this.”
She listened, enrolled her children in public school, applied for financial aid and in seven years graduated with her associate’s, bachelor’s and law degrees.
She passed two bar exams last year and is licensed in two jurisdictions.
“Who could even imagine that me, who had been a shell of a person most of my life, could even dream of this,” she said. “But I did it.”
Back to North Carolina
The woman from Eden and seven of her children continue to live out of state.
But North Carolina recently came to her attention once more.
Hearing about the fight to pass Senate Bill 35 and House Bill 41 made her want to encourage change.
When her marriage certificate was signed, she said, it took away the rights to any control of her life and its trajectory.
“I think that that was the worst thing that I could have done at that time, especially at 15 years old, and I thought it was a life sentence,” she said.
She said she would urge lawmakers to ban minors from marrying without exception.
“What’s the harm in waiting, right?” she said. “Just the amount of damage that it can do to get married as a minor far outweighs any benefits.”
For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it at link.chtbl.com/underthedomenc or wherever you get your podcasts.