Keri was just 15 years old when she met Paul, 24, through her cousin while celebrating at a house party. The duo had a one-night stand and she became pregnant. Paul agreed to marry her to avoid prison time.
The case of Keri, now 21, from South Carolina, is one of three cases explored in the BBC documentary “America’s Child Brides,” which explores state laws regarding marriage age.
British journalist Ellie Flynn, who investigated how underage girls become child brides in America for the film, told Fox News she was compelled to discover the legal loopholes that allow for such thing to happen so often.
“I’m just really surprised to learn there were so many states where child marriage is still legal in the U.S.,” said Flynn. “It’s something that I wasn’t aware of until I started looking into this. So I wanted to find out why. What was the reason the law was still in place? What were the arguments? What were these people thinking to allow someone to get married so young? I wanted to find out what exactly was happening.”
Flynn’s journey started in South Carolina, where she found 16 marriages over the past decade in county records, The Miami Herald reported. According to the BBC, in 10 of those cases, the groom could have been prosecuted under statutory rape laws. Flynn said she developed a relationship with the women featured in the documentary before she filmed them.
In the film, Keri described how Paul learned he was being investigated by the police after she learned of her pregnancy, and that he believed marrying her “might make the investigation go away.” While Keri originally was wary of saying “I do,” she claimed Paul convinced her father to give him permission. Keri claimed Paul managed to sway her father, an alcoholic, by gifting him a case of beer.
“My dad could have pressed charges,” Keri explained. “But, instead, Paul, convinced him to let us marry by giving him a case of beer. He was that much of an alcoholic, he took the case of beer, and it was a done deal.”
Flynn admitted she was stunned by the revelation.
“I think what surprised me was the fact that you can get out of this statutory rape charge by essentially marrying the victim,” she explained. “I really struggled to understand that. … It’s difficult to understand why the crime almost disappears just because they marry.”
In the documentary, Keri shared the marriage lasted for two years and described it as “horrible." She was unable to finish school because she had to work and raise a family. It’s a decision she still regrets. Today, Keri has very little contact with Paul. When she invited him to their son’s fourth birthday party, he was a no-show.
“Some of these girls had to leave school without a high school diploma,” Flynn explained. “Many felt once they were married, they were expected to fill the role of a wife. So that means looking after bills, looking after a house, going to work. And sometimes, you’re not only filling in this role of a wife, but also a mother or a mother to be.”
Another shocking case explored in the documentary is that of 14-year-old Heather, who met 24-year-old Aaron when he got a job in her father’s fishing tackle shop. But after the teen came home drunk one night, she passed out in his trailer. The next morning, Aaron told a horrified Heather that they had sex. When Heather became pregnant, her father forced her to marry Aaron. From her home state of Idaho, the trio drove 24 hours to Missouri where one can get married from the age of 15 with parental consent.
“Both Heather and Keri have said they wished they didn't marry so young,” said Flynn. “I think we need to listen to people who have had that experience and see what those experiences are like. And in the case of Heather, her father genuinely believed that it was the right thing to do. She was going to have a baby. Therefore, they should be married."
Flynn also shared Heather suffered a miscarriage. In the film, Heather claimed Aaron then turned into a “monster.”
“He just got mean,” Heather explained. “He had this look that meant he was about to start screaming and most likely start hitting things.”
“[Heather] was expected to do everything a wife is supposed to do in the eyes of her husband,” said Flynn. “It’s an incredible amount of pressure to put on someone so young.”
Just four months after the marriage, Aaron was jailed for 15 years for statutory rape. However, he reportedly served just three years of his sentence and was released on parole. Heather's father was also convicted of injury to a child and jailed for four months.
Heather, now 18, has since found love with someone else and is the mother of a baby girl. However, her past continues to haunt her.
“We thought it was a good idea to buy a handgun,” said Heather. “I’m not just going to live in fear of him coming back because I’m prepared if he does. He could want revenge. When I married him he was a very angry person. If he came anywhere near me or my daughter, I’d shoot him.”
There’s also the case of 14-year-old Zion from Georgia, who fell in love with her high school sweetheart, 16-year-old David. When she turned 16, Zion became pregnant with their son and the couple decided to marry. According to the film, David is in the military and the only way they can live together as a family on a base is to be married.
Zion’s mother supported the decision.
“With Heather and Keri, it was complicated,” said Flynn. “There was a sense where they felt… like they had few options. For Zion, she was very much in love and wanted to get married. That was very much a decision she made and was happy with.”
Flynn admitted the three different stories she learned on her journey continue to linger in her mind.
“It really just opened my eyes to something that I didn’t know,” Flynn explained. “I think the age of consent and statutory rape are controversial subjects. There’s often a lot of debate about it. It made me consider points of view that I haven’t in the past. But I couldn’t understand, and I still don’t really understand, the disconnect that statutory rape is illegal, can be tried for, but these marriages are legal and in some cases, can get you out of prosecution.”
Flynn hopes the film will educate viewers on the dangers of child brides despite laws that support them in certain states. She also said one can get married in her native UK at age 16 — a law that should also be questioned.
“These laws exist, but we have to think about these girls and the impact that it can have on them,” said Flynn.
"America's Child Brides" is available to view on BBC Three and BBC iPlayer.