When 14-year-old Donna was sent to a children’s Behavioral Health Center for help, she didn’t return with coping mechanisms. Instead, she came back with a husband. Donna was made a victim of an abusive child marriage after a 29-year-old Center technician preyed on her with the full permission of Donna’s mother. Two years later they were married, she was pregnant, and her childhood was traumatically stolen. After years of domestic violence, Donna finally escaped her underage marriage, received an education, and reclaimed her life.
As a child marriage survivor, I know first-hand that the time for legislative reform is now.
For you to understand why ending child marriage is so critical to me, you must first understand how my exploitation began. I grew up in an abusive home, and when I was 13-years-old, my father died from lung cancer. The abuse and his illness and death were too much for my young self to handle, and I ended up being admitted to Charter Behavioral Health in Jeffersonville, Indiana. It was a way for my mother to “wash her hands of me,” as she used to say so often while I was a child.
Instead of receiving treatment and coping skills to deal with the trauma I suffered, my vulnerability was preyed upon by a mental health technician that worked there.
He was 29. I was 14.
My mother allowed us to have a dating relationship when I was released from Charter, and our relationship became very sexual, very quickly. I lived in London, Kentucky when I was discharged from Charter, and this man lived in Jeffersonville, Indiana. We still saw each other nearly every weekend for two years with either him driving down to be with me or my mother driving me to meet him. When he was pulled over once for a burnt-out headlight, the police didn’t question why a 15-year-old was in the car with him. Neither did any of the hotel staff where I was taken while my mother left me alone with him for hours.
Just after I turned 16, my mother consented to me marrying him. He was nearly 31. I was still a resident of Kentucky at that time, and he drove down from Indiana to take me to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where he thought we could get married without question since it’s a known spot for quick weddings. He was right.
I ended up having to drop out of school before I completed the 10th grade.
The day after the wedding, he took me to his new apartment in Clarksville, Indiana. I tried to enroll in Clarksville High School, just up the street from the apartment complex we lived in, but the assistant principal wouldn’t allow it. She said I would become pregnant quickly, and they couldn’t have that at their school.
I had to begin working full time to provide for my 31-year-old husband who would spend his days getting high and drunk.
Even though I tried to escape at both 16 and 17, I was refused housing by two Indiana apartment complexes because I could not enter into a contract as a minor, and I was even refused refuge in a domestic violence shelter because I was not yet of legal age.
The police in southern Indiana did not feel it necessary to investigate further when the neighbors called because of the fighting in our home. They’d speak to my then-husband who assured them I had emotional issues that he was helping me work through. I had no credibility.
When I was 16, I became pregnant the first time. My doctor didn’t question the fact that my spouse was 15 years older than me.
When I miscarried, they performed a suction D&C at Clark Memorial Hospital but didn’t remove all of the placentae. I could have died two weeks later when I spiked a high fever from the toxins that the remaining placenta was releasing in my body. I stayed like this for two days before I could convince my perpetrator to take me back to the hospital.
I became pregnant again when I was 17. My daughter was born just about a month after I turned 18. I spent my 18th birthday, heavily pregnant, taken to a strip club by my perpetrator for his own gratification. Shortly after I gave birth, I was made to start working there. Again, I had no credibility.
My final breaking point came when he was pressuring me to do something I felt horribly uncomfortable with, and I stood my ground and said no. He then proceeded to choke me as my daughter, a baby at the time, saw him and laughed. In her innocent mind, we were playing. I knew in that moment I had to get out for my sake and hers.
But I was in no position to take care of a baby while I was still just a kid myself.
At this point, I was living in public housing, and the judge awarded custody to my perpetrator, a college graduate in his 30s. The court even awarded him child support to be paid by me, a 20-year-old high school dropout making barely above minimum wage.
Let me be clear: the institutions and legal system of Indiana failed both me and my child multiple times. The legal systems in Kentucky and Tennessee did as well. And though each of these seemingly insurmountable obstacles I’ve encountered would have been enough to destroy many, it has not and will not silence me.
What do I do when my credibility, my education, my body, my child, my income have all been ripped away from me and given to my rapist who has hid his offenses behind a marriage license? I fight to end child marriage across our nation and refuse to let this ever happen to another child.
Despite the violence, the exploitation, the economic disadvantages, the perceived lack of credibility, I refuse to hang my head in fear or shame any longer.
I believe the reason I have survived all of these things is to use my experiences to protect other girls from being trapped in a life like I was and to show my oldest daughter, even if from afar, that I have taken a horrible situation and done the best I could to make it right for others.
Since the atrocities of my early life, I have gone on to earn my bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, graduating Summa Cum Laude. I founded a nonprofit, Survivors' Corner, to provide a supportive network for trauma survivors looking to make social justice changes. I travel frequently as an advocate giving testimony before legislative committees and as a keynote speaker nationally and internationally. And I share this not to be self-celebrating but to demonstrate the resiliency that comes from giving pain a purpose.
Join us in this fight to end child marriage and ensure that predators can no longer hide their offenses behind a marriage license.
Donna Pollard, Founder & CEO Survivors’ Corner