I am not a person who really makes new years resolutions. I make goals and break them down into smaller tasks and get to work. I don’t wait until the end of a year to get started. Like most people,I do have hope for the next year and reflect on the year ahead at the closing of one year.
This year I quit my full-time salaried job and decided to commit to working in my research and consulting business full time. As business often takes time to build up I anticipated that I would not work full time in this area. I had anticipated that I would spend the summer letting everyone know that I was open for business and working on my side project; ending child marriage. That is not how my summer ended up!
I delivered my first keynote on child marriage at a conference in May. I had to leave that conference early to get on a plane to California and tape an episode of Red Table Talk at the lovely home of Jade Pinket Smith and Will Smith. We filmed the episode months before it was released and it was in interesting experience to sit on something like that. I shared the most painful and darkest parts of my soul to over 8 million people. Red Table Talk is a Facebook show and has a demographic made up of fans from all over the world. The support and words of encouragement that I received were humbling. For all the trash that is spewed on social media this restored my faith in humanity. I am grateful to Jada and her team for bringing my story to light and connecting me to other survivors and resources. As I walked onto my flight back to Indiana I reflected on all that had happened in the last 24 years since I was forced into marriage. I was married in Mississippi but California is where the bulk of my trauma had happened. I left my birthplace of California and had a yearning to return to my home and life that I had built in Indiana as I had never felt before. Ironically I returned home to Indiana on the 24th anniversary of my child marriage.I was picked up by my husband and youngest child who gleamed with pride and let me know that they cleaned a polished my car as a welcome home surprise. I was embraced with love and pulled into our driveway just as the sun was setting. I found comfort in my family, spent a few minutes in my growing spring garden playing with my children and pets. Slipping into my bed that night with my husband felt incredibly comforting.
As I began to look at the data and life stories of those living in the US who had been married under the age of 18 I began to understand much more the gravity of the situation and how much work there was to be done. I spent the summer much busier in my business and doing much more work in the area of child marriage. The word about my work in child marriage spread like wildfire and I had meeting after meeting with key stakeholders across the state. Organizations, government entities, community foundations, healthcare providers, the general public and religious organizations all wanted to better understand the situation. By the time Red Table Talk aired before Independence Day we had established the Resiliency Foundation as a resource for providers to get information, collaborate and decided how to best tackle the issue. Once the episode aired by inbox to the Resiliency Foundation blew up with not only support but other survivors sharing their stories. I knew that the data that we were working with was significantly lacking and did not reflect the situation at all. These thousands of stories that I received daily only served to solidify that fact. The ongoing significance of the harm that child marriage produces in undeniable. Just because no one is counting, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. By the end of July we had a network of organizations and professionals from around the world coming together to educate, empower and advocate for change. My own beliefs on child marriage began to shift as well.
My case is pretty clear I was preyed on and forced to marry a really bad 43- year-old man at the tender age of 15. I have found that most people agree no one under 16 should be getting married, end of story no exceptions.This union only compounded the lifetime of abuse that I had suffered. It’s difficult to dispute the wrongness of my situation. But what about the 17- year -old her married the 21- year- old father of her unborn baby? What’s wrong about them committing to each other in holy matrimony before their baby is born? The 16 -year- old and the 19- year- old. The 17- year- old marrying her boyfriend of 2 years before he leaves for boot camp? I had to ponder this a bit. The ultimate answer; appearances can be deceiving. No one is looking into the marriage before it occurs. The pregnant 16 -year- old has been sexually abused for years by a member of her household. She doesn’t know that there are options to help her be independent and safe. and is just trying to escape her abuser. Rather than providing a stable home for her new baby, often we are setting up a series of broken homes. The 16 year old might be in an abusive relationship with the 19 year old and not have any support from her parents. I have seen, 17, 18, 19. 20 years and younger abuse, torture, and murder. Evil doesn’t have a certain age that is comes out. We can’t prevent people from marrying the wrong person. But we can prevent children from marrying and help to preserve their childhood and they can enter adulthood with better mental and with more options.
As I talked with service providers I saw more and more that underage marriages are not counted as they should be and that we do not talk about the devastating effects of it and how pervasive it really is. In August NBC printed an in-depth article that highlighted how difficult it was to escape from, recover from and build a life after child marriage. More people were reached in the millions and this time the feedback was not as kind. The Epstein story broke as well and I saw the societal disregard for victims and the acceptance and protection of abusers. Many didn’t even read the articles, they only read the headlines and made up the story from there.
The momentum continued with the work that we are doing and my army of volunteers grew, so did the ignorance, hate mail, abuse, and threats. People enjoy sex with children, this is a disgusting reality of the society that we live in. Some want to marry a child and possess them to the fullest. Sex with children is a multi-billion dollar industry. As long as there is a demand, there will be a supply. We think that there are laws in place to reduce this harm and protect our families but they often don’t exists or they are not enforced. Even the laws that we do have don’t do what we think they should. It is illegal to make and sell child pornography. But what is the consequence of being caught? 6 months on probation possibly. These people are making enormous amounts of money of exploiting children and the risk are very low. A hit of meth can be sold once, to one person. A child’s body can be sold over and over and over again. Children are being snatched up and sold by bad men. They are also being sold quietly by aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, grandparents, foster parents and teachers.
The fall brought a deeper understanding of the intersection of human trafficking and child/forced marriage. Not only sex trafficking but labor trafficking as well. We had a young man who didn’t want to marry the girl his family had chosen for him because he would have spent his whole life working for her family for next to nothing. I met dozens of human trafficking survivors who had been married off as teens and the cycle of abuse and exploitation continued. A common theme emerged, sexual abuse that leads to early sexual activity. Early pregnancy that leads to a hasty teen marriage. He left and she still had a child or more ( teens who marry will have another baby the next year, and the next and have the highest rate of having 5 or more children). The young mother has to support her child/ren. With massive PTSD, no education or job skills they often find themselves in “adult entertainment”. Working in this field often results in using drugs and alcohol. This leads to substance abuse, pimps, legal problems and the situation just compounds and spirals into further abuse and exploitation.
At an international conference on social justice and human trafficking, child marriage was not mentioned once. No connection was thought about between child marriage and human trafficking. Several social service providers there even said to me, ” we don’t have a child marriage problem in the US”. With the support of Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, The Resiliency Foundation and the Coalition to end Sexual Assault put on our first in the state conference on “Child & Forced Marriage: The Intersection of Child Abuse, Domestic Violence & Human Trafficking”. My voice shook as I opened the conference with my keynote presentation about my story, but how all the systems that were supposed to protect me failed and how they still fail children today.
I spent the rest of the fall filming and working on several documentaries. One of them aired on national television on November. I had barely caught my breath before I was being sought after to speak with legislators around the county including my own state of Indiana. I provided expert testimony, explained gaps in data and spoke out for others who can not speak on their own behalf. I told my story over and over and over. But each time I felt weary and like I didn’t want to do this anymore I reflected on how many others can’t share their stories. The ones who have died, by murder or suicide. The ones who are still trapped and those who have moved on and just cannot return to that place. I had doors slammed in my face and did not receive the support from my colleagues and peers that I thought I would. Support often came in very unexpected places. After a day of telling and retelling my story and feeling totally defeated, I got the answer I had been working so hard to get. My head began to spin as I tried to process that it was really happening. I struggled to maintain my composure as more and more support gathered. More about this later 🙂
Our local newspaper ran a paper ran a piece on human trafficking in our area. They highlighted the work that my foundation is doing, the local and state coalitions and law enforcement. My picture ran next to two men that I enjoy working with and admire immensely. The reporter had interviewed me about my child marriage story and they work that I had been doing in that arena. The only part that was ultimately run was ” who at age 15 married an older man”……. I’m not going to lie, this pissed me off. When I inquired about this I was told that it was an editorial decision because they thought that I might be making it all up. Red Table Talk, OWN, People Magazine, NBC, CBS, BBC & PBS all fact-checked and found my statements to be truthful and accurate, but not enough to convince our local Fort Wayne new paper. This is a double-edged sword, on the one hand, the lack of local coverage has offered me and my family some additional privacy. On the other hand I am doing all of this for results and they are minimally slowing those results down. This train is picking up steam, get out of the way, get on board or get run over. Every day that it is legal for children to get married is everyday that they are still being abused and exploited in this way.
- So whats next? In 2020:
- Another fantastic partnership to bring a child/ forced marriage conference & training for Fort Wayne IN!
- I will be speaking on this topic at several conferences and training around the world this year.
- I have been working diligently on my memoirs and they will be released possibly this year! Y’all think you know the whole story but trust me it gets even more wild. Stay Tuned
- 2020 will see the release of more inclusive data and reports.
- Watch the Statehouse for not one but 3 bills protecting abuse survivors
- Increased collaboration between service providers, law enforcement and victims.
- Changes and enhancements to policy and laws.
- The resiliency Foundation continues to grow at a rapid pace we will be looking to expand our board and fill key positions in 2020. Board applications will be available soon. Volunteer applications and interviews will be in the spring.
- Looking back at 2019: A lot can happen in a year:
- 96 + survivors served in some capacity
- 178 +organizations educated on child Marriage
- 19 volunteers who unselfishly devoted their time and talent.
- 4 therapist who volunteered their services
- 1 Facebook show Red Table Talk
- 1 national news report NBC News
- 1 documentary released CBS News
- 2 podcast Pointcast Fort 806
- 3 conferences Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence @ Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault RAISE Consulting International Human Trafficking & Social Justice Conference
- And much much more to come in 2020.
- How do you want to be part of what’s coming next? Send us a message and let us know how you want to be involved.