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Child Mothers and Marriage

Orange County controversy raises difficult, painful questions

September 05, 1996

The disclosure that the Orange County Social Services Agency has helped girls as young as 13 marry the adult men who impregnated them is another shocking development in the struggle against teen pregnancy in American society. These are children, far too young to have been sexually active, and their pregnancies stand to damage their own and other lives. Remember, these cases potentially involve crimes, both rape and sexual molestation.

Society's larger task is to keep these pregnancies from happening and, if that fails, by sometimes encouraging adoption, a sensible solution when the mother herself is a child. Those who become mothers in their early teens, says the state Department of Social Services, are most at risk of long-term dependency on welfare.

In seeking to judge the viability of families, the political debates over family values and welfare reform should not be confused with the central issue in many of these cases--the protection of the infant and the underage mother. Both are victims.

This painful controversy arises in the matter of Orange County social workers who have helped arrange marriages of early-teen mothers to the adult fathers of their children. In the instances in which it was decided to allow the pregnant girls to marry, there were no governing policies in place. Clear guidelines and strategies should be developed to assist all parties who work on these problems.

First, California law forbids sexual intercourse with anyone under 18 except a spouse, and prosecutions under this law should be vigorously pursued. Gov. Pete Wilson emphasized this goal in his State of the State address, and it is a key element in his $52-million campaign to curtail teenage pregnancies. Sexual predators should not be provided with opportunities to wriggle free of the law, whatever the nature of the relationship.

Second, officials should move cautiously before signing off on the option of underage marriages in the mere hope of creating families that work. The risk is not worth taking for any girl under 16, and authorization even at 16 should be carefully weighed. Guidelines should cover such matters as whether the father has a job, whether he has other children and who would supervise the couple.

These are complex cases, as the experts have been quick to point out. They are not just about predatory males, by the way, but also about vulnerable girls whose parents and guardians may have failed them, and what happens after the first and best lines of defense fail.

There may be rare in- stances where marriage could work for even the youngest of the mothers, but the odds against success appear overwhelming.

A tough call is required when the choice seems to be between a potentially workable family unit or pointing the child mother and baby toward public assistance, absent a father. In only a few exceptions, where all parties are willing and of sufficient age to become responsible parents, is the risk worth taking.

Age 16, although an arbitrary benchmark in the adolescent years, seems a point at which such a chance might be taken. Certainly a 16-year-old mother usually will have more life experiences and maturity than a girl of 13 or 14.

Public policy is not well served when government has reached the point of asserting that the marriage of a child mother to an adult who may become a father in name only is a good solution. The true path lies in lessons taught children long before they become teenagers. But if society must make a choice, the decision should be made in the best interest of the child, and her baby.

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