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A bouquet of flowers sits next to a new marriage license in Boulder on June 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Jamie Rouse, arguably Colorado’s most notorious teen bride, has a message: It’s time to end child marriage.  

Rouse’s marriage at the age of 14 to a man 20 years her senior so outraged state lawmakers that in 2006 they banned minors from entering into common-law marriages. They didn’t, however, address the rules for ceremonial marriage, and a dozen years later, at least 2,240 marriage licenses have been issued in which at least one party was under the age of 18.

Of those, at least 30 involved one person age 15 or younger, according to a Colorado Sun review of state records. Eight of those were girls age 15 or younger who obtained marriage licenses with men who were at least 21; and six of those were boys age 15 or younger who obtained marriage licenses with women who were at least 21 years old.

And just like Rouse’s marriage, at least 24 of the marriage license applications involved someone under the age of 18 marrying someone aged 30 to 34.

“As much as I like to say I knew what I was doing and that I was mature, I wasn’t,” Rouse she said in an exclusive interview with The Colorado Sun. “At 15 years you don’t really know what you want. They should at least wait until they are 18.”

Jamie Rouse.

Colorado is one of 18 states that allow children of any age to wed.

In this state, those 15 and younger can marry with a judge’s approval, and those 16 or 17 can marry with either judicial or parental consent. Overall, there were 415,290 marriage license applications between 2007-17, so the 2,240 applications involving minors represent a half a percent of the total.

The United Nations has set a goal of eliminating child marriage by the year 2030. Two states, Delaware and New Jersey, banned it this year.

While the number of child marriage license applications in Colorado declined overall by nearly two-thirds from 2006 to 2017, when 117 were obtained, there was one shocking exception, according the vital statistics program at the state’s Center for Health and Environmental Data.

In Larimer County, there were 29 marriage license applications involving at least one minor in 2017, the highest number since 1995. It represented a 500 percent increase over the average for the five years from 2012-16.

“A jump like that is a red flag,” said Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of Unchained At Last, an organization dedicated to ending child and forced marriage in the United States.

Yet while Reiss thinks it’s cause for concern, neither the Larimer County Human Services Department nor the Colorado Bureau of Investigation have investigated, according to government officials.

It wasn’t possible for a reporter to identify any of the minors. Marriage license applications contain birthdates, but they are confidential vital records, released only to those with a “direct and tangible interest,” according to Colorado law. The marriage certificates themselves do not contain birthdates.

Kirk Bol, manager of the state’s statistics program, said he couldn’t even provide a breakdown of the ages without violating confidentiality rules. He also couldn’t provide the age of Colorado’s youngest marriage license applicant, again for privacy reasons.

Willis Rouse (Colorado Department of Corrections)

Rouse’s name became public when she and her husband, Willis Rouse, gave interviews celebrating their reunion after his release from prison in 2007, at which time they’d been married for five years.

Among other convictions, he had been charged with sexual assault on a child because of their relationship, but pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of stalking when a judge ruled their 2002 common-law marriage was illegal.  Willis challenged that ruling, and by the time their marriage was upheld by an appeals court in 2006, Jamie was 18, her husband was 38, and the first of their four children was 4. Willis was released the following year.

“At that point in my life, I thought he loved me,” Rouse said. “I found out that’s not why he married me. He married me so he wouldn’t go to prison.” Colorado law includes a spousal exemption from statutory rape or sexual assault charges if the parties are married.

Advocates of banning child marriage, like Unchained and the Tahirih Justice Center, argue that it can serve as a cover for human trafficking, and that it raises the likelihood of domestic violence, an interrupted education, divorce, poverty and psychiatric disorders.

Rouse’s experience corresponds to some of those. In a telephone interview, she said that sometimes, things with her husband “got physical,” but he “didn’t hurt the children.” She dropped out in middle school, though eventually earned a high school diploma at age 21, she said.

She said she’d like to file for divorce, but can’t afford the $210 in fees.

Those who have opposed legislation in other states that would forbid minors from marrying have cited religious tradition and parental rights among their reasons.

“Entering your child into an adult sexual relationship is not included in parental rights,” said Reiss, who was herself coerced into a religious marriage while in her teens.

As for judicial approval, Reiss said that none of the those with whom Unchained has worked “chose the option of being honest with the court.” The children may face repercussions from their parents if they don’t cooperate in front of the judge, she said.

In Rouse’s case, the Adams County Clerk and Recorder’s office made a mistake and let her obtain a ceremonial marriage certificate at age 15 with only her mother’s consent, but without a judge’s approval as required by law, according to police and court records. It’s unclear why the couple decided to go the traditional route, a year after they started their common-law marriage.

The legality of the marriage was challenged by a child welfare agency, but that was dropped after the common-law marriage was declared valid.

Although data for Colorado marriages for 2018 won’t be available until spring, an investigation by The Salt Lake City Tribune found at least two in Colorado this past April involving brides between the ages of 15 and 17.

The couples were part of a Utah-based polygamous sect, and former members of the sect helped the paper review the marriage certificates.  The couples wed in Colorado rather than Utah, the paper reported, because cousin marriages are legal here.  

After they reunited, the Rouses lived in a rundown motel room, sometimes with his parents. They eventually lost custody in 2013 of their children, two girls and two boys, who would now be ages 16 to 8, Rouse said.

The next year, her husband was convicted of distributing a controlled substance and other charges. He’s in prison until 2025, if he isn’t paroled earlier, prison records show.

Rouse was convicted of forgery and vandalism in 2016 and served about a year.

“When I went to prison that was it for me. It made me open my eyes and see how much I’d lost due to my drug use: my kids, my home; everything,” she said.

Now 30, she said she’s been sober for two years. She’s living in Nebraska, has a job in a fast-food restaurant, and is saving for her own apartment. “I bought my own car recently, an old beater,” she said with evident pride. “But it’s mine. I did it by myself.”

There are parts of her past that Rouse doesn’t want to discuss. Her motivation for sharing her story is a hope that her children might somehow learn how much she misses them. Mostly, Rouse wants to focus on moving forward.

“It was a huge mistake getting married that young,” she said. “I can’t change the past, but I can better my future.”

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