New Marriage Age Law Equals Better Protections for Thousands

Over the last 10 years in Virginia, thousands of children were married, as young as 13 years old; 90% were girls, and 90% of the time they married adults, who were sometimes decades older.

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The only barrier between them and a marriage license? A clerk’s rubber stamp based on parental consent or, for those under age 16, parental consent + pregnancy. There was no age floor, and no safeguards against forced marriage or other abuse or exploitation.

But as of July 1, when a new law goes into effect, young people will be enabled to make their own decisions about marriage, to advocate for themselves, and to have the opportunity to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.

The new law responds to a long list of urgent concerns flagged by advocates during the legislative process. These include:

  • Forced marriage is a serious problem in the U.S. that impacts many adolescent girls;
  • Child marriage can result in devastating, lifelong harm;
  • Girls aged 16-19 are at heightened risk of abuse;
  • All of the marriage licenses granted to children under age 15, and most of those granted to pregnant 15-17 year olds, sanctioned statutory rape as defined in Virginia;
  • Age 16 is the minimum age in Virginia to petition a court to be considered a legal adult (“emancipated”), marriage does not automatically emancipate minors, and unemancipated minors do not have the same rights as an adult to protect themselves in case of abuse (e.g., to seek a protective order or go to a shelter); and
  • Minors who are abused by their partners instead of their parents are outside of Child Protective Services’ jurisdiction in Virginia.

Given all these data points, Virginia’s current marriage age laws fly in the face of common sense and Virginia’s other laws and policies to protect children.

Today, if Virginia’s minimum marriage age laws were represented as an equation, they might read: Zero legal protection + minimal legal rights = extreme vulnerability. That’s an equation that results in serious consequences to girls’ health, safety, and well-being.

The new law will ensure that only individuals age 18 or older, or emancipated minors, can marry in Virginia.


Beth Halpern, Hope Kestle, Vivian Hamilton, Jeanne Smoot, Kristine Hall, Rebecca Robinson, Kristi VanAudenhove, Delegate Jennifer McClellan

Companion reform bills (HB 703/ SB 415) were successfully championed this legislative session by Delegate Jennifer McClellan (D) and Senator Jill Vogel (R), and strongly supported by a broad coalition led by the Tahirih Justice Center in partnership with the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance and Prevent Child Abuse Virginia.

Key provisions include:

Procedural safeguards

  • 16 or 17 year olds seeking to emancipate in order to marry will petition a juvenile and domestic relations judge, who will hold a hearing, issue written findings, and can order a Department of Social Services investigation or issue other orders as appropriate;
  • the minor will be appointed an attorney (guardian ad litem, or “GAL”); and
  • if the petition is granted, the minor will be given the rights of a legal adult.


Substantive criteria
To grant the petition, the judge must find that:

  • the minor is not being forced or coerced to marry;
  • the parties are sufficiently mature;
  • the marriage will not endanger the minor (taking into account age differences and any history of violence between the parties, as well as criminal convictions for crimes of violence or crimes against minors); and
  • the marriage is in the minor’s best interests – but very importantly, neither pregnancy nor parental wishes is sufficient to establish “best interests.”


Improved protections for children from being forced into marriage, and from the many other risks and harms of child marriage

This is tremendously important progress, but we need your help to make sure this new law actually works as intended:

  1. Spread the news! Talk about the new law when you present to schools or youth audiences. Share it with family lawyers, GALs, social workers, CASA advocates, and other children’s advocates with whom you work.
  2. Monitor implementation! If judges and GALs do not do a vigilant job, or teens are too afraid to disclose in court what is really happening, or abusive parents or partners try to evade the new law, a vulnerable teen’s next phone call may be to your agency.
  3. Share stories with us! We are working with national partners to urge that child marriage be eliminated in every U.S. state. Knowing how this new law is working (or what snags it hits in implementation) will not only be crucially important to enable us to course-correct as needed in Virginia, but also to drive reforms in other states.

To learn more about the alarming data-points that built momentum behind this new law, see our earlier blog post: “Empowering Girls in Virginia to Choose If, When and Whom to Marry” (January 11, 2016). Please contact Jeanne Smoot at the Tahirih Justice Center, or 571-282-6161, for more info or to share your experiences.

Jeanne Smoot is the Senior Counsel for Policy and Strategy at the Tahirih Justice Center, where for over a decade she has helped lead innovative advocacy initiatives to reduce vulnerabilities of immigrant women and girls to violence and to empower them as survivors.



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Meet Mishawn Glover

Why do you do this Anti-Violence work?
I feel it was what I was born to do.  It is something I enjoy and I know by helping others, I will reap many blessings and good fortune.

What would you like to learn your first year on your new job? 
I would like to learn more about new trends, prevention, and intervention work around issues of family violence and sexual assault.

What would be the title of your autobiography?mishawn cup
This Is Me: The life-ism of Queen Shawnee G

If you were a vegetable what would you be? 
A Vidalia onion, I am a southern favorite, yet only for acquired taste. Like an onion, peeling back the layers may be tough at first but when prepared I offer sweet and savory flair to life!


What is the latest book you have read and would you recommend it?
The Purpose Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For? By Rick Warren.  I would recommend this book to anyone of Christian faith who is having difficulty understanding and finding their purpose here on earth.

What are the 3 things you love about Virginia?

  • Almost 27 beautiful years of my life were established here.
  • My alma mater is here.
  • My friends and family are here.

If you had one box for all your stuff, what would you put in it?
I would keep in my box, my phone and charger, my kindle, a notebook/journal, my favorite ink pen, coffee and cake.

Lastly, what excites you most about your new job at the Action Alliance? 
Everything! I love to learn and experience new things. I work on the hotline crisis team and although the work is challenging and requires you to be emotional available to people you do not know or have never seen. Knowing that I possibly made a difference in their life makes it all worth while.

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Mishawn Glover is a Hotline Specialist for the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She brings a wealth of knowledge and experience of crisis intervention and trauma-informed care to the hotline team. During her spare time she enjoys volunteering, trying new foods, learning, and living life to it’s fullest potential.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call.

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Advocacy Day with NNEDV

That day the sun was out and the wind was blowing hard, but underneath the capitol you would not know it. It was the day that Hillary Clinton was named the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party for President of the United States, that Prime Minister Modi of India was visiting Washington, and that the powerful and articulate survival letter published in response to the Stanford sexual assault trial on BuzzFeed was circulating among the public consciousness. I was there for National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) Advocacy Day, along with other advocates from across Virginia to meet with our State Representatives. I felt inspired to be part of the communication process while seated with strong and committed women long at work and dedicated to using their voices advocating for those experiencing violence as a very real part of their daily lives.


courtesy NNEDV

Come the new fiscal year, the additional funding made available will hugely affect available services that have previously been lacking. We both thanked our representatives for their part and expressed the importance of stabilizing future funding. Once survivors are able to access these essential services it would be detrimental to cut them off again as the budget fluctuates from year to year. Advocates involved in local programs were able express just how these resources are going bridge the gap for the survivors in their own communities on the ground. For example: did you know that previously there was only one dedicated therapist for sexual assault in Fairfax County with a population of over one million? Did you know that in South West Virginia there was only one court advocate for the region commuting hours in a day from one court house to the next and being forced to deny support to countless survivors? This will change for the better with new funding, Charlottesville as well as its’ surrounding counties will be able to engage in prevention work for the first time in a long time.

There is still much to be done. The tone of some meetings were most concerned with instances of false accusations of rape or how our cause threatens gun accessibility, conversations that demonstrated why we were there. We are still forced to turn away many seeking services– on one day in Virginia we turned away 170 families due to a lack of funding. We also face the issue of separating the needs of survivors from the general homeless population, when it comes to shelter policies. Striving to keep survivors in their homes when violence or assault is occurring, or realistically getting a plan in place within the 30 days’ time allotted for emergency shelter, is impractical for those we serve. Transitional housing allows for continuation of the supportive services this population requires, whether it be due to ongoing legal cases, pressing health concerns, or newly gained control over personal finances. The next fiscal years’ funding has not yet passed. It is being held up due in part, to “controversial” LGBTQ issues that are attached. Little time is left before break and then campaigning will begin for the upcoming election. In years like these it may be best to hope that the bill from last year carries through, and know that so much relies on those who occupy the seats in house, senate, and the presidency.


Sen. Leahy and Sen. Crapo – picture courtesy of NNEDV

Charlotte Hoskins is an intern in Development, Communication, and Policy at the Virginia Action Alliance. She is an advocate for caring about human diversity as much as biodiversity and allowing people to tell their stories. She has volunteered and worked with organizations dedicated to empowering community. 


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call.

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Meet Karen Burruss-Cousins

Why do you do this Anti-Violence work?
Because no one deserves to be hurt.

What is the latest book you have read and would you recommend it?
I have not read a book in years but I do listen to audio books.  Currently I am listening to the Outlander series and yes I would recommend it.

If you were a vegetable what would you be? Why?
A pumpkin; because what is not to love?  You can make soups, pies, decorations, and scare Linus and the Peanuts gang.

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What are the 3 things you love about Virginia?

  • The best is that I never have to leave the state to have a great vacation because of the variety of scenario available around Virginia.
  • The other best is THE WINE.
  • The third is having to correct my statements to ensure I say the Commonwealth of Virginia and not the state.

What would be the title of your autobiography? 
Never Stop.

If you had one box for all your stuff, what would you put in it?
I would fill that box with photos and a change of clothes (This is of course assuming my family and cats have their own boxes, if not then I am putting them all in there and toting them to safety with adequate air holes and food.)

What is the most incredible view you have ever seen? 
The Ring of Kerry in Ireland.



Lastly, what excites you most about your new job at the Action Alliance? 
I am excited to be working with advocates from local programs and state partners to assist in making long-lasting and powerful change for survivors and the community at large across Virginia.

Karen Burruss-Cousins is the Training and Resource Specialist at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. 


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call.

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Experiencing DO YOU

Walking into a room for the first time, not knowing what to expect or who will be there—these are feelings participants have used to describe what it is like–annoyed, angry, and tired [from being in school all day]. Yet, because they were either court-ordered, referred by the school or based on assessment results, made to attend, they were one of the first participants of the Action Alliances new teen campaign: DO YOU, being held at OPTIONS in Culpeper, Virginia.

OPTIONS is a program designed to serve less serious offenders in an effort to reach teens before they become entangled in such things as negative peer relationships, substance abuse, and criminal activity . In 2013, OPTIONS was selected as one of our pilot sites to evaluate the effectiveness of DO YOU, a prevention initiative to address youth violence by confronting its root causes and enhancing protective factors to promote positive development and healthy relationships using creative expression. There are two components to DO YOU.  The first phase, consists of 10 sessions in small, similar gender groups of 8-10 teens. The second phase is DO SOMETHING which is a cumulative community level strategy designed and executed by the teen group members.

The success of DO YOU is so reliant on the facilitator/participant relationship, that the Action Alliance devotes two full days to train facilitators interested in implementing this program.

Wanda Anderson, the facilitator at OPTIONS was one of the first facilitators to become trained and certified.


As the one at OPTIONS who is called on when youth are “having a hard time” adjusting to family or school life, Wanda knows firsthand how important it is to develop this relationship right from the start. Knowing the resistance she would face, Wanda set the tone for group participation by providing snacks and drinks, playing upbeat music and displaying a colorful array of art materials used throughout the program to illicit some curiosity about what this group will entail. As the teens relaxed their defenses a bit to enjoy the snacks, Wanda engaged them in light-hearted conversation while also talking up the program to alleviate some of their worries.

Once everyone arrived and it was time for the first session to begin, the teens were engaged in a group ice breaker activity by completing such statements as:

  • A strength or talent I bring to this group is…
  • Something I’ve always wanted to try is…
  • My all-time favorite movie is…
  • Something I wish people knew about me is…

Wanda further connected with each participant by validating their responses, asking open ended questions and sharing some of her own experiences- including some of her favorite parts of a movie mentioned. Initial feelings of discomfort were soon replaced by laughter echoed throughout the room.

20130207_180537The teens were more engaged and after completing the YOU-niverse activity, became more comfortable with each other based on commonalities that have been presented through volunteer sharing. What could initially be regarded as inhibition and resistance over the course of a couple of hours was turned into “connectedness” and “thought provoking and sometimes difficult” conversations that continued for the remainder of their time together in DO YOU.

After completing both phases of DO YOU, the teens described their experience as fun, having changed how they communicate with others and the realization that they were not the only ones dealing with stuff. While our male identified participants in other pilots needed a little more encouragement to engage in the art process, this group, which was comprised of self-identified females, all loved working in their ‘zines—. This was evident as they each took pride in showing off their finished product at an art exhibit held as part of their DO SOMETHING event. When I asked the teens about their facilitator, Wanda, the teens had nothing but good things to say. However, it was the response from one particular teen that defines, to me, what it means to be a great facilitator: ” Mrs. Wanda noticed things about me, like…if I changed my hair….or had on a different pair of shoes…it’s like…she saw me.”

20130207_180809When I asked Wanda about DO YOU, she immediately responded “It’s awesome! The teens are awesome!” She stated that after participating in DO YOU many friendships have developed-some positive and some negative, and, she adds, some of the teens still stay in touch with her and she is amazed to see the growth. She stated, ” they all seemed more confident and ready to tackle whatever lies in front of them.”

I have no doubt that this is, in large part, because of the relationship that was formed on day one with the facilitator. A relationship that was grounded in respect, honesty, and trust.

If you are interested in attending the next DO YOU Facilitator Certification Training being held in July 2016, please visit our website:  DO YOU Training. For more information regarding DO YOU contact Leslie Conway at

Leslie Conway is the Prevention Coordinator for the state of Virginia. Prior to working at the Action Alliance, Leslie gained experience coordinating primary prevention initiatives at a local program and developing a peer educator program in the local high school and faith community. As someone who understands the lasting consequences of witnessing the trauma that comes with domestic violence, she is committed to finding ways to resist and prevent all forms of violence.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call.

To inquire about submissions for blog, please check the submissions page for requirements or email

Meet Laura Bennett

Why do you do this Anti-Violence work?
Because it touches every part of life. Because it keeps me up at night. Because I love my daughters.

What would you like to learn this year in your job?
How to implement trauma-informed principles in every facet of my job. In my work within the anti-violence cause area, I have become more aware of how vicarious trauma impacts not just responders and care-givers but those of us working in systems change.



What is the latest book you’ve read and would you recommend it?
The Door by Magda Szabo. A story about dealing with trauma, healing bonds between people, and surviving. YES!

What would be the title of your autobiography?
Serenity Now.


What are the 3 things you love about Virginia?
Virginia has so much to offer and I love so many things about it:

  • The weather,
  • The beauty, and
  • The people.

If you had one box for all your stuff, what would you put in it?
I would fill the box with photographs of my father, my children, my husband and our pets. I would add in things my father gave me and drawings my girls made me. I would also include my cat’s ashes. And I cannot forget to put in Sour Patch Kids.


What is the most incredible view you have ever seen?
Who can choose? It is a tie between a sunset over the ocean in the Outer Banks or the site of the new Wegmans being built in Short Pump.

What excites you most about your job at the Action Alliance?
I am excited to expand and grow the areas I work in and to continue learning – always learning. Lifelong learning and professional development are the keys to the sustainability of all nonprofits and I am excited to be part of the nonprofit community, particularly the sexual and domestic violence field, every single day.

Laura Bennett is the Training Institute Coordinator for the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She is the mother of 2 girls, 4 cats, and 3 dogs. She has worked in the nonprofit sector for over 15 years and is passionate about helping nonprofits build their capacity to carry out their missions. A native of New York state, she is happy to be living in the warm South.

To check out the conferences and training that Laura helps produce, click here.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call.

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The Warmth of Other Suns: A Conference Confronting the Racialized Aesthetic of Humanity.

Historically within America, anti-black racism has been constructed through a lens of whiteness, the result of which is a racialized aesthetic of humanity. Specifically, societal constructions of blackness have dehumanized these non-white subjects, viewing them as hyper-resilient, and almost superhuman. This mythological construction of Blackness as pain resistant perpetuates a culture of policing and violence against Black bodies. Blackness plays a sacrificial role within American society: a scapegoat for crime, punishment, and other forms of oppression such as police brutality, racism, economic exploitation, and mass incarceration.

In August of 2016, the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance will launch a 3-day multi-disciplinary conference that will feature workshops, key note addresses, and networking sessions with the goal of engaging communities in learning and adopting healthy and constructive methods to respond to and prevent violence in African American communities. This conference will present and encourage the process of decolonizing the minds of those who attend in order to help end the perpetuation of oppression through ignorance and violence. This conference will establish an environment that serves to acknowledge Blackness as precious and worthy of respect and protection, as well as acknowledge the many different ways in which black individuals respond to and heal from trauma.


As a trans, black queer who is also a survivor of violence I am extremely proud and excited to be a part of this conference especially during this crucial period of black movements. This conference is not only an opportunity for me to practice self-love but also an opportunity for me to represent and fight for black folk, especially black queers, and to help to prevent harm so that black joy, safety, and comfortability can stop being such a fleeting experience. This conference is a ray of hope in a time when my body is seen as both a target and a trigger, when 6 feet under feels so close, when my laughter, cry, and pleas can still be mistaken for gunshots, and when I am told to endure my pain because I am not afforded any luxury other than the burden of resilience. With this conference I am not only reclaiming autonomy, but also the audacity of hope and joy.

Selu Sky Lark is an intern within the Advocacy and Training Program at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. Selu is a survivor and activist for racial and gender justice, equity and equality. 

For more information on our upcoming conference; The Warmth of Other Suns: Multi-Disciplinary Strategies to Prevent and Respond to Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence in African-American Communities. This conference will establish an environment for diverse professionals working to address and prevent sexual and intimate partner violence to work together with community leaders to increase our understanding of factors that increase vulnerability for violence and decrease access to conventional survivor support mechanisms for African-American communities across Virginia.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call.

To inquire about submissions for blog, please check the submissions page for requirements or email

Meet Tamara Mason

Why do you do this Anti-Violence work?
In a time when communities are constantly being shredded and driven apart by ever increasing instances of violence, it is imperative for those of us who believe in building bridges of understanding find ways to spread love, not hate. Violence has no home where love and respect abides.

What would you like to learn your first year on your new job? 
As Sexual Violence and Domestic Violence are areas of social justice work that are less familiar to me, I know I have a lot to learn. I would like to learn more about the resources and agencies within the state of Virginia that are a part of the group of dedicated people and organizations working to combat sexual and domestic violence in our state and help the victims and survivors continue to lead a prosperous and fulfilled life.

If you were a vegetable what would you be? Why?
Though my hair would probably suggest a closer resemblance to broccoli, I would probably be a pepper. There is SO much variety in the pepper family, ranging from remarkably sweet to extraordinarily spicy. I like to keep people guessing.


Describe the magazines on your coffee table?
I lack both magazines and a coffee table and I am more of a catalog girl than a magazine girl.  It would not be unusual at all to find an Avon catalogue or 10 hanging out near my couch.

What are the 3 things you love about Virginia?

  • My family is here,
  • I am no more than 2 hours from either the mountains or the beach, and
  • Virginia has a deep and rich history – it is good, it is bad, and it is ugly.


If you had one box for all your stuff, what would you put in it?
My analytical brain wants to know details about this box, such as:

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  • Are we talking about a ring box or refrigerator box?
  • Is it only for my things or am I sharing it?
  • Is this box going to be moved?
  • Is this box going to be permanently sealed or will I have regular access to its contents?



What is the most incredible view you’ve ever seen?
The dome of ashes at Majdanek in Poland.  I went on a Holocaust study trip to Poland.  The entire trip was …………… wow, but this site was probably one of the most intense and “incredible”.

Lastly, what excites you most about your new job at the Action Alliance?
I am excited to be a part of the change I would like to see in the world. And being at the Action Alliance gives me the opportunity to participate in making change for survivors of violence.

Tamara Mason is the Data Systems and Resources Coordinator at the Action  Alliance. She has over fifteen years of experience operating in the social justice, human relations, and public policy realm. Knowledgeable of political, social, and cultural trends to anticipate, identify, and respond to political and cultural trends to achieve justice-oriented outcomes. Equally delighted to be part of a team or engage in independent endeavors. Lover of all things animal and rainbow. Doer of good.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call.

To inquire about submissions for blog, please check the submissions page for requirements or email