Save the Girl, Not the Date- There Goes the Bride


Marital Misery- At age 16, Donna Pollard smiles on her wedding day. Now 34 and divorced, she feels no other girl should have to go through what she did, so she founded the Survivor’s Corner. This is the only photo she has from her wedding day. Photo illustration by Mia Breitenstein

Words by Wesley Lynch

Donna Pollard’s 14-year-old love story didn’t involve holding hands or meeting in the school hallway to say a few words before class. Her love story began in a behavioral help facility. Instead of being the 16-year-old crush with dreamy eyes, he was her 29-year-old mental health technician.

“He would do things like position himself really close to me when I was in line getting lunch, or he would make sure he was always there when I went to the gym,” Pollard said.

The romance developed when the man began to slip love letters under her door. Loving the attention, Pollard fell for the older man hard, commending herself for being mature enough to flirt with a man 15 years older than her.

After she left the facility, her mother approved of the relationship, being fully aware of the age difference. The two would go on dates on the weekends and he would stay overnight at her house from time to time — just like a normal teenage romance. But the relationship became more intense and her love life began to pull her away from her high school education.

“He would build me up and make me feel like I was too mature for the high school I was going to,” Pollard said.

Pollard’s mother agreed to the marriage with one catch — she had to finish her sophomore year of high school. She was also supposed to stay with her mother until the end of the year, but events took an unexpected turn. What was once love letters and phone calls turned into him throwing her stuff out of her mother’s house, confirming his controlling nature. He then coerced her into disobeying her mother’s one rule and they moved them  to live in Indiana.

And the marriage was all perfectly legal.

Donna Pollard, now 34 and divorced, founded the Survivor’s Corner because of her own traumatizing and demeaning marriage while still a minor. The Survivor’s Corner is an organization that is solely dedicated to giving a voice to survivors of sexual assault, exploitation, and abuse while also giving them the resources they need to heal.

At the beginning of the 2017 summer, Pollard teamed up with Sen. Julie Raque Adams to write Senate Bill 48, proposing to change the legal marriage age. Previous legislation had allowed those 16 or 17 to marry with a parent’s permission and individuals under 16 to marry with a judge’s approval if one of the parties were pregnant. In Senate Bill 48, Pollard and Adams set the legal age for marriage at 18 with a judge’s approval for marriage if one party is 17. The bill also requires a 17-year old applying for marriage to have a GED, evidence of having a job for at least three months, and at most a 4 year age difference with the person they’re marrying.

“We really tightened the exceptions up,” Pollard said, “Because if we’re going to have exceptions, we need to make them as protective as possible.”

On March 29, Governor Matt Bevin signed off on Senate Bill 48. The new law has absolutely no tolerance for the marriage of individuals under 17.

Quite frankly, child marriage is something that many people don’t know is an issue, let alone something people talk about.  According to a 2017 study by PBS, between the years 2000 and 2015 at least 207,459 individuals under the age of 18 were legally married in the United States. To put it in perspective, if someone had a dollar for every child who married as a minor, they could buy a three bedroom, two bathroom house in the suburbs.

Child marriage in Kentucky is not the hottest topic. We are one of the top three states for the highest rates of child marriage, with 73 child weddings out of every 10,000 weddings. The other two states are Idaho and West Virginia, and both have large rural and poor communities. Residents in these areas typically have less of an opportunity for comprehensive sex education that focuses on having safe and protected sex, possibly because their state law enforces abstinence education. This lack of education can lead to unexpected pregnancies, which in turn, may push a girl to marry and start a family before she’s ready.

However, early pregnancy is not the only reason child marriages are common in rural and poor communities. Many of these areas have roots in various religious practices that see child marriage as an ongoing tradition and an acceptable custom. But in Pollard’s case, it was her ex-husband’s manipulation that led her to believe child marriage was normal.

Pollard, Sen. Julie Raque Adams, and other senators supporting the bill were elated and surprised to hear that it had been passed. Matt Bevin’s quick sign off of the bill encouraged Pollard to keep fighting for the marriage age to eventually have no exceptions under 18 in Kentucky and other states in the United States.

“No matter what you have been through, it is absolutely possible to rise above it and reframe the experience into something that is protective for other people,” Pollard said.

And rise she did. «