Chloe was a high school student in Idaho when she met a young father online in early 2015. They soon began dating and 10 months later, she was pregnant. But there was a problem: Chloe was 15, and her boyfriend was 22.
Chloe said he convinced her that the only way that he could avoid prison is “if we got married.”
So that’s what they did. On a cloudy day in March 2016, she married her older boyfriend believing it would shield him from statutory rape charges.
“He had researched it,” said Chloe, who was 16 at the time of the wedding and had convinced her mom to consent to the marriage. “He told me, ‘This is what we need to do. And if we don’t and I go to jail, it’s going to be all your fault.’”
Chloe’s story is not as uncommon as it might seem.
From 2000 to 2018, nearly 300,000 minors under the age of 18 were legally married in the U.S., according to a recent estimate by the nonprofit Unchained at Last, which obtained marriage certificates from 32 states and partial data from 12 others.
Roughly 86 percent of the children were girls and nearly 60,000 of the marriages involved an age difference such that the younger spouse could have been considered a victim of a sex crime.
Since 2000, the number of child marriages in the U.S. has declined each year – dropping from a high of nearly 80,000 in 2000 to just under 2,500 in 2018.
But Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last, said even one child marriage is one too many.
“There have been days that we've gotten five calls in the same day from individuals begging, ‘Please help,” said Reiss.
Reiss’ group helps minors escape wedlock and also lobbies for legislation to ban marriage for children under the age of 18, which remains legal in 44 states. She noted that a marriage results in a legal contract that strips minors of many important rights, such as the ability to retain an attorney to file for divorce or get a protective order.
“Even when a teen enters into a marriage willingly, that still creates a nightmarish legal trap,” said Reiss.
“Because once you're in a marriage, you should have the right to get out of it. So the adult spouse at any point wants to file for divorce, retain an attorney, get a protective order, get into a domestic violence shelter, that adult spouse has those options. The minor in that marriage, they have to wait until 18.”
Reiss said the minor would need the consent of a parent or legal guardian to take any of those actions.
Just this summer, lawmakers in both Maine and New Hampshire voted against raising the marriage age to 18 in part, some said, because the age of consent for sex is 16.
NBC News contacted 80 state senators and representatives in the two states who had opposed the bills. Only six responded, including Maine state senator Bill Diamond.
Diamond, who is a Democrat, said he opposed the measure because he believes that parents want the right to enter their children into marriage.
In an interview, he acknowledged that he hadn’t spoken to any such parents or anyone who was married as a child. Diamond reiterated his position when asked about the fact that 16-year-olds can’t vote or buy cigarettes but are allowed to marry even though they can’t separate on their own.
“I could make that argument, you could make that argument,” Diamond said. “But in fact, we don't know the facts behind the situation. If the parents say, ‘Yes, this is the best thing, then I think we have to respect that.’”
With the support of her mother, Chloe filed for divorce from her husband when she turned 18. Three years later, she’s living outside of Idaho and starting a new career. She said her daughter, now 5, is thriving.
Chloe, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her daughter, said she wanted to speak out to deter other young girls from jumping into marriage.
Her ex-husband didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
“As a mom of a daughter especially, I think that this message really just needs to get out there because there's so many girls who think it's totally okay as teenagers to date men who are in their 20s,” Chloe said.
“This isn’t okay,” she added. “These men are pedophiles targeting children.”