Sherry Johnson distinctly recalls the long desk she sat at while her mother told a judge she was to be married.
Johnson’s legs likely dangled from her seat as she waited to hear if the Florida court would sign off on a marriage license.
She was just 11. Her husband-to-be was 20.
“When I found out I was going to be married, I didn’t know what to think,” Johnson, now 58, told InsideEdition.com. “I didn’t know anything about a wife, how to be a wife, how to become a wife, what to do as a wife. My mom told me, she said: ‘You’re going to get married.’ That’s mom. You do what mom says you do, so that’s what I did.”
Johnson was 9 when she was raped by a man known to her family – the man who would later become her husband – for the first time.
She tried to tell her family what was happening in their apartment but her cries fell on deaf ears until a teacher pointed out Johnson’s growing stomach.
“I gave birth to my daughter at the age of 10 at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami,” Johnson said. “Then I was forced to marry my rapist at the age of 11.”
Johnson said her family and church officials decided she should marry the child’s father to avoid a potential criminal case. A government clerk in Tampa refused to sign off on the marriage, so the family traveled to Pinellas County, where they had better luck.
InsideEdition.com reviewed a copy of the marriage license, which lists Johnson’s birth date. No law prevented the 11-year-old girl from being wed.
“I was able to enter into it legally because of the two loopholes that states in the Florida statutes that a child could be married — anyone can be married, at any age... with the consent of a parent, you can be married with the discretion of a judge,” Johnson said. “That’s exactly the loophole that I fell through, and no one actually protected me. They protected him by putting the handcuffs on me, instead of putting the handcuffs on him, and he was the rapist.”
Johnson’s story began in Florida, but it could have taken place in many parts of the United States.
Only three states — Virginia, Texas and New York, in order of enactment — limit marriage to legal adults.
Twenty-five states do not set a minimum age at which a person can legally marry, effectively making it legal to wed at any age, according to the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit advocacy group that works to end violence against women and girls.
Other countries that don’t specify a minimum marrying age include Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Clerks alone can approve marriages of all minors in eight states and in Washington, D.C.
Only 17 states require judges to “consider the minors’ best interests,” and nine states permit pregnancy to lower the minimum marriage age, the center noted.
Child marriage has long been an issue in the United States that, in 2018, is far from being resolved.
Using resources including state marriage license data, advocates against the practice estimate that more than 200,000 children were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2015.
Nearly all cases involved a girl and an adult man.
“Few studies have been done about arranged/forced marriage in the U.S., so exact statistics are unknown,” according to Unchained at Last, the only nonprofit in the U.S. dedicated to helping women and girls leave or avoid arranged and forced marriages, and as well as provide support once they get out.
“We know the ones who are reaching out to us are a drop in the bucket,” Fraidy Reiss, the founder of Unchained at Last, told InsideEdition.com.
At 19 years old, Reiss married a stranger within her family’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn.
The match was made about two months before the wedding, but Reiss said she was never allowed to be alone with her soon-to-be husband.
But she trusted her family and went ahead with the arrangement, not wanting to incur the treatment so many unmarried women in her community often faced.
“A week after our wedding, I realized things were bad,” Reiss said.
One morning, enraged after waking up late, he punched a hole in a wall.
“A couple days later, he threatened to kill me,” Reiss said.
Reiss said the pair was out when her husband lit a cigarette, despite vowing he'd kick the habit. She reminded him of his promise, snatched the cigarette and tossed it in a garbage can.
“It was a full blown, ‘I’m going to kill you for doing that,’” she recalled him saying. “It was said in a vicious, angry way. I was really scared; I was very struck by what he said. He just kind of brushed it off and went on his way.”
The threats continued as Reiss gave birth to their first child 11 months after their wedding and a second shortly thereafter.
Soon the outbursts were accompanied by graphic descriptions on how he planned to kill Reiss, she said. Finally, a friend pointed her toward a therapist.
“I had never confided in her, but she probably sensed what was going on,” she said. “This therapist opened my eyes, and explained to me it was domestic violence... that I was right to feel he would eventually kill me.”
But things only got worse for Reiss.
Reiss said that after a particularly violent incident in which her husband kicked in their door and tailed her when she attempted to drive away, she sought further help.
“I got a restraining order,” she said. “My family and community were so swift and severe. I had always been taught one of the greatest sins I could commit as a Jew … is turn over my fellow Jew to the secular police. Everyone was just horrified at what I had done — everyone was like, ‘How could you?’ Nobody asked me why.”
Rabbis in the community sent an attorney to Reiss’ house, drove with her to family court and stood by her side as she was made to tell a judge she wanted to drop the restraining order, she said.
“It was so extreme, something inside me clicked that day. ‘This is insane; they don’t care what I’m going through. They care nothing about me,’” she said.
It took five years for Reiss to secretly save enough money to apply to college, and five more years before she secured a job in journalism. Finally, she was able to move her children out of that hostile environment and file for divorce.
“My family and community shunned me,” she said. “My family told me they planned to sit Shiva for me. It’s been 10 years and there’s still no contact.”
Reiss said that after she secured her freedom and the freedom of her daughters, she set out to help others do the same.
“The women and girls who reach out to Unchained at Last come from nearly every community that you can think of,” she said. “They’re from every major religion and a lot of minor religions, as well as secular backgrounds. They are both from families that have been in America for many generations, as well as immigrant families from many different countries of origin. They come from every socioeconomic level and they really range in ages as well. We’ve had as young as 14, to women in their 60s.”
Children — anyone under the age of majority, which is 18 in most states — are particularly at risk for being forced into a marriage. And once entered into a contract of marriage, it’s extremely difficult for a child to get out on their own.
“You think of the obstacles I faced as an adult — it’s compounded a million times as a child,” she said. “For somebody who’s not yet 18, it’s so hard to explain just how overwhelming the obstacles are, because the basic steps that an adult survivor would take, with great difficulty, are just not even an option for children.”
After marrying at 11, Johnson struggled to further her self development while raising her growing brood. She gave birth to her first child when she was 10 and had six children by the time she was 17.
“I was kicked out of school three times, which was something I loved to do,” she said. “Every time I got pregnant, you couldn’t go to school.”
She long hoped to save up enough money to leave the so-called marriage, but grappled with the decision to actually leave her children’s father in the wake of her community’s view of divorce.
“But things got so hectic and so crazy in my life, I got to a point where I really didn’t care,” Johnson said.
Johnson said she had become accustomed to the pattern her life had taken on when six years into the marriage, she found an opportunity for freedom.
“I was able to go to legal aid, and legal aid gave me a $75 check... and I got a divorce,” she said. “At 17, my marriage ended with six children that I pretty much raised on my own. I knew for a fact that I had to look out for my children because they had no other options but me. I’m their parent, I’m the one that they had to look up to, to look out for them, and I could not dare allow what I went through, for them to have to go through any of it.
“I am a child looking out for my children,” she continued. “When girls had baby dolls, I had real dolls that I had to take care of.”
Unlike Johnson, many girls who find themselves wanting to leave a marriage before they turn their state’s age of majority — or in other words, become an adult — are unable to do so, as marriage is oftentimes the only legal right afforded to a minor.
“If we try to help them, they’re considered runaways,” Reiss said.
Most domestic violence shelters will turn away children who arrive on their own, and attorneys often won’t accept a minor as a client because contracts with children are voidable, making it impossible for underage girls to file for divorce or a restraining order.
“I mean, it's almost ridiculous when you think about the situation where a child is allowed to enter into this serious contract, but doesn't have any of the rights necessary to negotiate that contract safely,” Reiss said.
“It's like putting somebody who doesn't know how to swim, blindfolding and tying his arms and giving him the right to swim by throwing him in a swimming pool. You're not helping him.”
But the fact that Johnson’s marriage — a term Johnson herself uses loosely — to her children’s father came to an end is not surprising: Two thirds of marriages involving underage girls end in divorce, according to a study by the College of William & Mary Law School.
“Age at marriage has for decades been the strongest and most unequivocal predictor of marital failure,” the 2012 study noted. “The likelihood of divorce nears eighty percent for those who marry in mid-adolescence, [and] then drops steadily. Delaying marriage until the mid-twenties reduces one’s likelihood of divorce to thirty percent.”
Statistically, very few benefits exist for girls to marry young.
“There are studies in the United States that show marriage before 18... puts a woman at a 23 percent greater risk of heart attack, cancer, diabetes and stroke, and an increased risk of nearly every psychiatric disorder that exists,” Reiss said. “And marriage before 19 makes a girl... 50 percent less likely to finish high school and four times less likely to finish college. Right here in the United States, studies show that early marriage also makes a woman over 31 percent more likely to end up living in poverty.”
Johnson struggled for many years in the wake of her forced marriage and stunted childhood.
She married twice more, describing both relationships as abusive, but said that sort of treatment was the only thing she knew.
“I’m thinking this is okay,” Johnson said. “This is the way life is supposed to be for me, if for no one else. So I took it.”
But in 2013, Johnson decided it was time for a change. She filed for divorce, wrote about her childhood trauma in a self-published novel, Forgiving the Unforgivable, got her high school diploma and put her energy into helping others.
Though Johnson’s first marriage occurred in 1971, little has been done to amend or alter the laws in place in Florida that make it possible for an 11-year-old to be wed.
Johnson plans to change that.
“I’m advocating a bill for children not to be able to be married until the age of 18,” she told InsideEdition.com. “To buy a car or be able to get a loan, be able to sign for an apartment — these are the things that's necessary to have a decent life. If you're less than 18 years of age, you can't do that. You have to totally depend on your spouse.”
Johnson started by approaching the Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Senate with hopes of starting a dialogue. At first, she was dismayed at the response she got.
“I had a lot of legislators tell me, toe-to-toe, there’s no such law that a child can get married,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘You need to do your homework, because it’s happening.’”
Passing laws in the United States preventing children under the age of 18 from marrying has proven difficult.
In a 2017 year-end review posted on its website, Unchained at Last noted it tried unsuccessfully to improve bills that passed in New York, Connecticut and Texas that limit child marriage but do not end it. The organization also helped to write and/or promote legislation in California that was unsuccessful, but that was “amended into a dangerous bill,” authorities said, and legislation that was defeated in New Hampshire.
A proposed law on the subject matter was also defeated for the second time in Maryland.
Delegate Vanessa Atterbeary, a Democrat who represents District 13’s Howard County, was surprised by the pushback she encountered when she introduced legislation that would prevent anyone under the age of majority to marry.
“I kind of thought, maybe naively, this was going to be a no-brainer,” she told InsideEdition.com.
Instead, it was defeated in 2016 and in 2017 it was met with resistance until it was eventually shut down.
“It spanned party lines and generational lines,” Atterbeary said of the arguments made in favor of allowing a person to marry when they were 16 or 17.
“[We heard], ‘My bride was 17’ and, ‘what if someone wants to get married because they’re homeless?’… the rationale wasn’t making sense to me,” she said. “There were no statistics that were brought forward.”
Atterbeary acknowledged that the laws as they stand may not be detrimental to all who marry before they reach adulthood, but said there’s no question that the law makes it possible for abuses to occur.
“I think people do, and it’s natural to, draw on your particular circumstance that may have worked,” she said. “Our job is to protect the citizens in the entire state. I think it’s our job to look at the larger picture and look at all the circumstances.
“In my mind, it’s about protecting the young women and possibly young men who are in these [dangerous] situations,” she continued. “A vote against this is you’re saying to those kids, ‘What happened to you doesn’t matter because we’re worried about this small group that wants to get married.’”
She disputed the idea that the bill infringes upon someone’s right to marry, saying, “This bill is about children’s rights. Period.”
“I’m all for people getting married and having a happily ever after,” Atterbeary said. “But wait until you’re 18.”
The General Assembly was adjourned until Jan. 15. Atterbeary plans to hit the ground running.
“Let’s make this the year MD,” she wrote on Twitter on Jan. 13, including the hashtag “end child marriage.” “3rd times a charm!”
At 58 years old, Johnson says she should be readying for retirement. Instead, she works three jobs.
“I’m still dealing with the aftereffects of having a shaky foundation to start my life off with,” she said. “I work three jobs to survive because I have to take lower-end paying jobs and work harder to survive, and it takes all of my time. Here, I am almost 60 years old, and I’m working like I’m a 20-year-old.”
Johnson says she’s tired most of the time, but she doesn't complain. She loves her work, she says.
She works with children who have behavioral issues and with the elderly, caring for those who cannot care for themselves. She also runs the TaMar Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting sex abuse.
“It’s wear and tear on the body and on the mind to always constantly work, but I enjoy what I do,” she said.
Johnson also spends her time talking about her short-lived childhood to make lawmakers in Florida realize how harmful the law can be.
Her testimony has helped push along a pending bill, sponsored by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, that would prohibit any person under the age of 18 from obtaining a marriage license.
“I go to every committee and I speak on that bill,” she said. “I give them my life story.”
The bill on Jan. 11 passed the Senate rules committee unanimously, leaving one more committee for it to get through before it would land on Gov. Rick Scott’s desk. The Senate will hold a hearing on the bill on Wednesday.
“It made me feel really good,” Johnson said of knowing one last hurdle remains. “I’m excited about that.”
But she says the work in this space is far from over.
“Now we’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do about these children who have been put in these tragedies and how it’s affected them.” Johnson said. “They never got the opportunity, never received the opportunity to be a child, and it’s bled over into their adulthood.”
She plans to work toward organizing a gathering where survivors can come to talk about their experiences with each other.
“I realize that a part of the healing process is being able to talk about their situation, what happened, what had taken place,” she said. “When they express it, they release it.”
Johnson has developed a play based on her life story and is planning a Florida tour to share her experiences. She hopes it will encourage others to come forward.
“I've heard that it takes a village to raise a child,” she said. “Well, this is part of the village. We're raising these children. We have to protect these children.”