Supporters for both pieces of legislation pose for a photo after Gov. Dan McKee signs the bills into effect. 

Rhode Island becomes fifth state to ban child marriage, Gov. mandates review of ODs

STATEHOUSE – Childhood marriage isn’t as common as it once was, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still happening  – even right here in Rhode Island. 

“If you think child marriage is not an issue in Rhode Island, you’re sadly mistaken,” according to Deputy Majority Leader Rep. Julie Casimiro (Dist. 31 – North Kingstown, Exeter), who was one of the driving forces behind officially banning the practice in the Ocean State. Over a period of seven years, spanning from 2013 to 2020,  there were more than 30 child marriages in Rhode Island. “Eighty-eight percent were underage girls marrying older men.”

One of those young girls was only 14 years old at the time of her nuptials. 

The General Assembly was in unanimous agreement on banning childhood marriage, and on Monday when Gov. McKee signed the law into effect, Rhode Island became the fifth state to pass such legislation.

“We’re leading the pack on this critical child welfare issue,” according to Casimiro, but there’s still lots more work to be done around the rest of the county. 

Childhood marriages are responsible for destroying the health, education and economic opportunity of young women, according to Casimiro, and greatly increases the likelihood that these girls will experience domestic violence. 

These marriages are often used as a way to cover up an unwanted pregnancy or even abuse, and in some cases, the parents benefit financially. 

“Childhood marriage is one of those things we never think about, beyond being the practice of a bygone era when marriages were arranged and people died at a younger age,” according to Sen. John Burke (Dist. 9 – West Warwick), who sponsored the bill in the senate.“But while it’s rare in today’s world, it does happen.”

“The only reason it still exists is because no one ever changed it,” he added. “We assumed that changes in cultural norms simply ended this practice.” 

Burke extended his gratitude to those who supported legislation that removed any possible loopholes to childhood marriage and “end this outrageous practice.”

Unchained at Last Executive Director Fraidy Reiss, who has spent the past decade advocating against forced and childhood marriages, said she was proud to be part of ending this “sexist, archaic practice” in Rhode Island. 

“This is very deeply personal for me,” Reiss said. “I am a forced marriage survivor myself, and it was out of my traumatic experience that I founded Unchained at Last – to help others in the United States to escape forced marriages.” 

Since the non-profit’s inception, Reiss has been able to help hundreds of girls and women across the country who’ve been forced, pushed or forced into marriages they entered without full, free consent, or those who’ve been prevented from leaving their marriages. Oftentimes, according to Reiss, this becomes the case in childhood marriages.

According to Reiss, who has help to successfully advocate for bans in four other states – Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Minnesota – the Ocean State was able to accomplish this much more quickly. This legislation passed in a matter of months, and with unanimous support. 

Reiss thanked Gov. McKee for sending a clear and strong message that “in Rhode Island, women’s rights and girls rights are human rights.” She’s calling on other states to follow the Ocean State’s example, “and end a human rights abuse that destroys girls’ lives.” 

“We want to end child marriage in every state,” Reiss said. 


That same day, the governor also signed legislation that mandates the state permanently analyze overdose deaths to help identify ways to reduce their prevalence. 

“The overdose epidemic is a pressing issue in states across the nation,” he said. 

In 2018, the general assembly passed legislation which temporarily required a group of health and public safety professionals to review all overdose deaths in Rhode Island, according to McKee, in search of trends and other contributing factors. That group has been providing an annual report in the years since, but the sunset clause was meant to take effect last year. 

“Now more than ever, especially going through the last year of the pandemic, it’s crucial for Rhode Island to continue examining factors that contribute to the increasing number of deaths, and help us respond to the overdose crisis effectively,” McKee said. 

“It’s time to double down on this work,” he added. 

Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin (Dist. 1 – Providence) and Rep. Brandon Potter (Dist. 16 – Cranston) were the primary sponsors of the legislation responsible for removing the sunset clause. 

“This year was a difficult year in many ways,” according to Goodwin, though it’s been particularly challenging for those who suffer from substance abuse. “Those people carried a particularly heavy burden during the pandemic.”

This past year, Rhode Island saw a 25 percent increase in overdose deaths, she said, and “our state cannot afford to stop studying what’s behind the actual causes.”

“We need to know which drugs are the biggest issue, how they are being taken, where they are coming from and the circumstances leading to the overdoses,” Goodwin said. “The more we know, the more we can do to identify resources and strategies to prevent people from being lost to the tragic overdose epidemic.” 

Sen. Potter highlighted the unfortunate points that “they’re probably aren’t very many of us who don’t know someone affected by the opioid or overdose epidemics.” 

“Far too many good people have been lost to addiction and overdose, and while we know that corporate greed and fentanyl have fueled much of this crisis, we don’t always know the stories of the individuals who’ve been lost,” Potter said. 

“Behind the record high numbers and the statistics are real Rhode Islanders,” he continued. “Real people who fell into a tragic fate because of unique circumstances.” 

By continuing to collect this data, the state will be better able to recognize shifting and emerging trends, and hopefully “save over people and their families from experiencing the same suffering and anguish.” 

“In that way, it can bring a little hope out of tragedy,” Potter said. 

Both Goodwin and Potter had many people to thank for helping get this legislation to the governor’s desk. Rep. Justine Caldwell (Dist. 30 – East Greenwich, West Greenwich,) “who has done some really important work on the overdose epidemic,” was one of the many names Potter singled out ahead of the bill’s signing. 

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