BOISE — Idaho doesn’t have a minimum age for marriage. Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, believes this is one of the ways Idaho children are being trafficked.
On Tuesday, Rep. Wintrow introduced a House bill to the Judiciary, Rules & Administration Committee to amend the existing law to establish the minimum marriage age at 16 years old.
Currently in Idaho, 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with the consent of a parent or guardian. Anyone younger than 16 years old can still get married upon approval of a parent/guardian and a judge, seeing that the minor(s) are “physically and/or mentally so far developed as to assume full marital and parental duties, and/or that it is to the best interest of society that the marriage be permitted,” according to Idaho’s marriage statute.
“If we’re truly looking out for the best interest in children and their well-being, we should be looking at that,” Rep. Wintrow said in an interview.
“This is an attempt to really look at children’s rights. The age of consent in Idaho is 18 and so the parents themselves are the ones that sign consent for their children to actually be subject to child marriage,” Jennifer Zielinski, executive director of Idaho Anti-Trafficking Coalition, said in a phone interview.
Among the potential changes to the Idaho marriage law, Rep. Wintrow wants to replace “society” with “child” so it reads, “the best interest of the child” instead “the best interest of society,” which would align with child welfare and child protection laws in Idaho.
Rep. Wintrow hopes to generate discussion with her marriage age bill. She believes the minimum age for marriage should be set at 18-years-old but determining a minimum age is her priority right now.
The Idaho Anti-Trafficking Coalition is a non-profit organization started in 2017 to fight human trafficking by bringing awareness, education, rehabilitation and mental health services through safe housing and outpatient clinics to Idahoans.
Human trafficking is modern day slavery, according the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Traffickers use coercion or fraud to kidnap victims for the purpose of solicitation, abuse and oppression.
The challenge that the Coalition and other human trafficking programs face is the lack of research on human trafficking in Idaho. According to the 2017 National Human Trafficking Hotline Idaho report, 14 victims, 12 traffickers and 10 trafficking businesses were identified. However, the report also states that the data doesn’t reflect the entire extent of trafficking in the state due to the “lack of awareness of human trafficking or of the National Hotline” which causes “significant underreporting, particularly among labor trafficking populations or by certain racial or ethnic groups.”
Zielinski believes that Idaho’s first defense against human trafficking is identifying victims and establishing the state’s first safe house.
“We need a safe house. By not having have safe place for victims of sex trafficking, then our programs are reluctant to identify them,” said Zielinski.
Right now, the Coalition is in the process of opening Idaho’s first safe house, Solace House, in Boise. The house will have 5 to 10 beds for minors aged 11 to 17-years-old for healing and rehabilitation services. Victims can stay up to 2 years and will then be transitioned into the community.
The project was on schedule to open next month but Zielinski believes that Solace House will begin operation in April or May. The Coalition also plans to open a safe house for adults in the near future.
In addition to organizing Solace House, the Coalition has also targeted specific locations where trafficking is traditionally known to be such as hotels, gas stations, truck stops and anywhere near the state borders, to educate them and make them aware of the trafficking issue.
One of the biggest hotspots for human trafficking is along Idaho’s borders and rural communities due to their isolated locations. The Coalition has been very active with partnering with trafficking organizations outside the state as well as businesses on the I-84 highway to stop trafficking entering and existing the state.
“Every single child, should be everyone’s responsibility,” Zielinski said.
Another bill introduced this legislative session by Senator Abby Lee (R-Fruitland) would add a new section to Idaho code that would allow the diversion of minors to safe houses if they committed a nonviolent crime while considered to be a victim of human trafficking.
Zielinski is excited to be able to have a safe house for victims if the Senate bill passes. She also would like to see legislation for a diversion program for first-time offenders in human trafficking and tackle the problem at the core.
“Through a diversion, it would allow for significant treatment and reinforcement as an option to hopefully work towards rehabilitation,” Zielinski said.
Cheyenna McCurry is a legislative intern with the James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research in Boise, and a student in the University of Idaho School of Journalism and Mass Media.