Nearly 7,000 underage girls — some as young as 12 and 13 — have wed older males in South Carolina over the past 20 years, endangered by decades-old legal loopholes that can expose children to sexual abuse.
In some cases, these grooms are much older. Since 1997, dozens of South Carolina men in their 40s, 50s and 60s have married teenage girls who were not yet 18.
Many of these unions are made possible by a 1962 state law that sets no minimum age for marriage as long as the bride is pregnant. The rule was designed to reduce the number of babies born out of wedlock. But critics argue that it allows older men to sexually exploit younger brides who are themselves still children.
Indeed, many of these marriages meet the criteria for child rape. Under existing state laws, an adult in South Carolina could face prosecution for having sex with a minor — a felony — and also marry his pregnant victim with her parent's blessing.
As recently as 2014, a 14-year-old girl and a 27-year-old man were granted a marriage license in South Carolina. In 1997, a 16-year-old girl married a 60-year-old.
Deanna Everhardt Winters can't remember which one of her parents signed the form allowing her to marry an 18-year-old boyfriend in 1987. She was 14, already a mom.
"I was just a baby," Winters said.
North Carolina wouldn't grant Winters and her boyfriend a marriage license, she said. But a probate judge across the border in Upstate South Carolina would. So they drove to Gaffney.
"By today’s standards, even I would consider it sexual abuse," said Winters, who divorced her husband within two years. "I didn’t have a childhood."
Alongside the teen birth rate, the number of underage marriages has been dropping for decades. Most county probate courts in South Carolina won't issue marriage licenses to applicants under the age of 16 anymore. But a few probate judges, who are elected by the public but not required to hold law degrees, still lean on a rule passed by the General Assembly 56 years ago that allows pregnant adolescents — of any age — to tie the knot.
Spartanburg County Probate Judge Ponda Caldwell is one of them.
"The law specifically says 'without regard to age,'" Caldwell said. "Why should we get in the way of them legitimizing their babies?"
But Caldwell, and most of her colleagues, agree that the law begs clarification.
"It wouldn’t be a bad idea if the Legislature looked at this and maybe re-evaluated where we are today since the law was passed back in the '60s," she said.
So far, that hasn't happened. Most states offer provisions that allow teenagers younger than 18 to marry, but a national movement to close these loopholes is gaining ground. Meanwhile, South Carolina lawmakers have largely ignored the issue.
Statehouse politicians in Columbia introduce legislation every year to protect unborn children and restrict abortion, but they have passed nothing in nearly 20 years to prevent minors from entering into child marriages — with adults or each other.
In 2002, records obtained by The Post and Courier show that a 12-year-old girl in this state married a 14-year-old boy.
"That’s just wrong," said Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington Republican who has been active on child-protection issues. "I was really unaware that so many people under the age of 16 were getting married."
Shealy said she intends to pre-file a bill in December to make sure this can't happen.
"It’s going to be fixed," she said.
'Legalizing statutory rape'
Unicef, an international child rights organization, defines "child marriage" as "a formal marriage or informal union before age 18." The practice is typically linked with developing countries in the Middle East and Central Africa, where forced marriages and teenage pregnancy rates soar.
That's why the U.S. State Department has declared child marriage a gender-discrimination and human rights issue.
But child marriages aren't unique to poorer countries. Most states carve out exceptions that allow teenagers to wed long before they can vote or buy alcohol. In South Carolina, children can get married before they're old enough to drive.
"I think the general perception of child marriage is that it happens elsewhere," said Katelyn Brewer, the executive director of Darkness to Light, a nonprofit group dedicated to eradicating child sexual abuse. "And we’re not aware that there are children in this country marrying men — or women, I guess — who are considerably older."
In relatively few cases, teenage boys in South Carolina have married adult women. But girls are disproportionately impacted by the state's rules.
South Carolina's marriage code sets the legal age to marry at 18 but allows 16- and 17-year-olds to wed with their parents' permission. The law was updated 18 years ago to prevent younger teenagers from obtaining a marriage license by stipulating that "(a)ny person under the age of sixteen is not capable of entering into a valid marriage."
But an older section of the law allows girls to marry if they become pregnant or give birth. It was never erased from the books and sets no minimum age for marriage.
"It’s like legalizing statutory rape," said Carole Swiecicki, executive director of the Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center in Charleston. "It’s crazy. I actually had no idea this law existed. That makes no sense. It’s a crime."
The age of consent in South Carolina is 16, but teenagers as young as 14 may agree to have sex with a partner who is no more than 18 years old.
That puts many of these underage marriages in conflict with the state’s sexual assault laws. Take the 14-year-old girl and the 32-year-old man who were granted a marriage license in South Carolina in 2007. She was not old enough to consent to sex, but the law allowed her to marry the man anyway.
"We’re talking about an adult male sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl," Swiecicki said. "That is absolutely a crime."
Practically, a child bride needs only to have hit puberty and prove that she's pregnant to obtain a marriage license in South Carolina.
The older rule does not require the groom's parents to consent to the marriage, but at least one of the bride's parents must sign off.
"To me, that's statutory rape," Sen. Shealy said. "I don't care who signs it."
To this day, county probate judges across the state interpret the law differently.
Beaufort County Probate Judge Kenneth Fulp, who serves this year as president of the S.C. Association of Probate Judges, said his peers disagree on the issue. Fulp himself will not grant marriages licenses to teenagers younger than 16.
"To me, it’s a pretty clear-cut situation, but I can’t speak for others," he said.
Even though the state's laws exist in apparent conflict, Fulp said most judges choose to follow the newer statute. "That’s certainly been my policy," he said.
'Nowhere to go'
Berkeley County Probate Judge Keith Kornahrens honors the older rule. His office has issued at least three marriage licenses to applicants under the age of 16 since 2008, state records show.
"This is almost like a law school exam. You can take either side and make a real strong argument," said Kornahrens, who holds a law degree. "That’s fine for a law school exam, but it creates problems in the real world."
Caldwell, Spartanburg's probate judge, also grants licenses to applicants under 16. The law requires that they provide a doctor's note proving that the bride is pregnant or has already given birth.
"I’ve been in this office for 40 years and we’ve done them the entire time I’ve been here," said Caldwell, who does not hold a law degree. "It doesn’t happen that often."
Spartanburg County has issued more marriages licenses to applicants under the age of 16 than any other South Carolina probate court in the past decade, but such marriages have become increasingly rare. In 2013, Caldwell's office issued three of these licenses. In 2008, her office issued five.
The vast majority of children who become pregnant in this state every year do not marry. In 2014, for example, 49 girls, ages 10 to 14, gave birth in South Carolina. Only one 14-year-old applied for a marriage license that year, according to the S.C. Department of Health an Environmental Control.
In 1997, 203 children under the age of 15 gave birth and 86 marriage licenses were granted to 13- and 14-year-old girls.
When Evie Lane found herself pregnant at 14 years old in 1985, her mother offered her no choice but to marry her 19-year-old boyfriend.
She wed Mark Lane on Aug. 19, 1985. They'd grown up going to church together but were married instead by the Florence County Probate Court. She wore a white button-down blouse and peach pants.
"We were poor, didn’t have much of anything," she said.
Evie turned 15 and gave birth to their second child.
"I had nowhere to go," she said. "My mom said, 'You made your bed. You lay in it.'"
Child marriages were more common back then. Kevin Baird, lead pastor of the conservative Legacy Church in Charleston, said his mother wed at 19. And some of his friends were married at 15 and 17.
"Here, 50 years later, they’re still married," he said.
But times have changed. Baird said he wouldn't consider marrying teenagers younger than 18. Teenage pregnancy and sexual promiscuity are problems, he said, but marriage isn't the solution.
Marriage is a covenant relationship with God that should be undertaken seriously, he said.
"A 13-year-old can barely figure out how to deal with their complexion, not to mention the complexity of these relationships," Baird said. "Even (at) 18 and 19, they’d have to go through considerable premarital counseling before I would officiate that marriage."
The state health department provided data to The Post and Courier related to underage marriages from 1997 to 2014 — the most recent year available. It shows fewer than 10 counties in recent years have issued marriage licenses to teenagers under 16, including Aiken, Horry, Lexington, Berkeley, Spartanburg and Greenville.
Marriage records are public, but DHEC refused to release any names.
'We were young'
Deanna Faye Everhardt — now Deanna Winters — rode the school bus with Kevin Dale Lewis.
“That’s actually how we met,” she said. “We didn’t live too far from each other.”
Lewis was in high school. Winters said she was 11 or 12 at the time, a middle-schooler. They were neighbors in Newton, N.C., about 40 miles northwest of Charlotte.
Lewis was a “bad boy,” she said, “tall, dark and handsome” with “big, beautiful green eyes.”
In 1986, when she was 13, Winters discovered she was pregnant. “It was the summer between seventh and eighth grade,” she remembered. Madonna released "Papa Don't Preach" that June. The pop ballad about unintended pregnancy soon hit the top of the music charts.
Winters gave birth the following February to a daughter, Miranda. She quit school to care for the baby and talked with Lewis about getting married. Her parents posed no objections.
"They were like, 'Oh, well. You have a baby. You should get married,'" she said. "We were young and thought we were going to be a family and grow old together."
Probate Judge W.R. Douglas officiated the ceremony in Cherokee County, just a few miles from Gaffney's famous Peachoid water tower. Before his death in 2004, Douglas sanctioned more of these child marriages than any other probate judge in South Carolina, DHEC data shows.
Back then, probate judges received fees and tips for every marriage they conducted. Douglas was known to drum up business along the border in both states — even promoting his services in advertisements and posting flyers in bars.
"I can remember going by his house on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings and people would be lined up down the walkway to his house, waiting to get married," said Josh Queen, who succeeded Douglas as Cherokee County's probate judge. "Gaffney was kind of known as a place to come get your marriage license."
Queen does not issue marriage licenses to applicants under the age of 16. But he acknowledged that "when it’s not exactly clear, it’s up to the judge’s discretion on how to interpret the law."
In many cases, that means leaving the decision to laymen. Probate judges in South Carolina aren’t required to hold law degrees or to have completed any legal education. In fact, 29 of the state’s 46 probate judges, or 63 percent, do not possess law degrees. Their ranks includes funeral directors, police officers, a textile designer, a banker, a history teacher and several paralegals. Five have only high school educations.
Winters remembers no trouble applying for her marriage license in 1987, but trouble certainly plagued her relationship with Lewis. He struggled with drugs and alcohol. He spent time behind bars for breaking and entering. Winters eventually filed for divorce.
"There is a place and time for everything," she said. "When you’re 13, 14 years old, that’s not it. That’s not the right time."
Winters and Lewis rekindled their relationship in 2005, but broke up five years later. He was then diagnosed with cancer and died in May. For years, Winters lied to their daughter about her own age.
"I didn’t want her to know how young I was," Winters said. "It was a terrible thing to do, but I just didn’t want her to know."
Now, Winters wants the law changed. She said no one stood up for her when she was a 14-year-old girl and she cautioned mothers and fathers from repeating her own parents' mistakes.
"They might as well just be giving their kids away," she said, "selling them into sex slavery."
The Marriage and Constitution Restoration Act, introduced earlier this year by six Republican lawmakers, would have deemed same-sex marriages in South Carolina "parody marriages." It never became law, but the proposal garnered considerably more attention than another bill filed by an Upstate Democrat to outlaw marriage under the age of 16.
Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, who is now running for lieutenant governor, said her own grandmother married at 13 in the 1930s.
"My goodness, nobody under 16 should be getting married — pregnant or not," said Norrell, of Lancaster.
Her bill received no support and died in the judiciary committee. "Next session, I’ll reintroduce it," she said.
A stricter bill to outlaw all marriages under 18 in New Jersey failed to become law last year when former Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it, arguing the legislation "does not comport with the sensibilities and, in some cases, the religious customs, of the people of this state."
S.C. Rep. Jonathon Hill, an Anderson Republican and a tea party activist, agreed that a law banning all marriages under the age of 18 would be too restrictive.
"I think we need more flexibility than that," he said.
But South Carolina's pregnancy loophole that sets no minimum age for marriage is worth some discussion in the Legislature, said Hill, who was unaware that such a rule even existed.
"I think it’s a conversation we absolutely should have," he said. "Generally, I think the age 16 is a good balance."
Meanwhile, a push to outlaw child marriage in other states is gaining traction. Frontline, The New York Times and Fox News have described the scope of the issue in national reports. CNN told the story earlier this year of a Florida woman who was forced to marry her rapist when she was 11 years old.
In May, Delaware became the first state to outright ban marriages under the age of 18. Most state laws still offer exceptions to the minimum age, although lawmakers in Virginia and in other states have recently set stricter rules.
This progress has been encouraging but slow, said Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained at Last. The New Jersey-based group wants to stop child marriage across the country.
"The national landscape is pretty grim. Child marriage is legal right now in 49 out of 50 states," Reiss said. "As of a month ago, it was legal in 50 states. That’s pretty shocking."
Reiss' group estimates that from 2000 to 2010, 248,000 children under 18 were married in the United States.
Not only do these marriages undermine statutory rape laws in many states, she said, child brides often have no means of escape.
Running away from home under the age of 17 in South Carolina is considered an illegal "status offense."
"Children are typically not allowed to bring legal action in their own name," Reiss said. "The parents who force them to marry would have to be the ones to bring the divorce proceedings. It makes no sense. It’s evil."
She hopes Delaware's new law will prompt change in other states.
So does Evie Lane. Six months ago, Lane, now 47, separated from the husband she felt forced to marry at age 14.
"I’ve given up enough of my life," Lane said. "If I can help one girl, or stop one girl from living the life I’ve lived, I’ve done it. I’ve achieved it."
Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.