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Underage Marriages Should Not Be Urged, Study Says

September 07, 1996|MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Orange County social workers should stop recommending to Juvenile Court judges that teenage girls under their protection be allowed to marry the adult men who impregnated them, according a confidential draft report from the Social Services Agency.

Responding to controversy surrounding the agency's role in helping some adolescent girls get married over the last two years, an agency task force has recommended that such unions be decided solely by the juvenile courts.

Judy Tanasse, the assistant director of social services in charge of the agency's ongoing review of the practice, declined to comment on the task force document, saying the findings are still preliminary.

"It's a rough document and could change," she said.

According to the draft report, which was obtained by The Times, social workers should only provide to the Juvenile Court judges information on the teenager, the man and their relationship.

The information gathered by social workers should cover the minor's relationship with the man, the minor's relationship with her parents and the adult's employment and criminal history, according to the task force's recommendation.

"It does not seem appropriate for this agency to recommend marriage, but it is certainly within the rights of the bench to authorize marriage," the task force members found.

The proposed policy would effectively forbid a practice that has been followed over the last two years by a certain group of social workers who helped some underage girls marry, or resume living with, their adult partners, instead of treating the girls as victims of child abuse or statutory rape.

Social workers have been struggling with the ethical and legal dilemmas presented by pregnant teenagers who want to continue relationships with older men. In one case in July, a pregnant 13-year-old girl was married to her 20-year-old boyfriend.

The practice has divided social workers and prompted the review.

"There is a range of opinions about appropriate interventions regarding these cases," task force members wrote in their five-page report.

"The discussion appears to polarize from 'don't bother because police do nothing and the minor wants to be in this relationship' to 'we should thoroughly investigate and never recommend marriage.' "

The task force investigated 15 cases from the last two years in which social workers grappled with the issue of reunifying the minor with the adult. The task force, however, did not outline in the report the specific recommendations made by the socials workers in each case.

Such recommendations could include: recommending marriage or recommending that the county's protection of the minor be ended so a marriage could take place.

The report noted that "about seven [minors] were released by the court with full knowledge of [a] pending marriage. . . . In about six cases, the minors were released to relatives and in some of those cases, the records indicate the minor did marry the adult."

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