Donna Pollard had only just turned 16 when she stood in a Kentucky state court house with a serial paedophile who had used his position of trust to groom and repeatedly rape her over the previous two years.
Her abuser, smartly dressed in a dark suit and blue tie, was not cuffed or restrained in any way. For he was not facing any charges for the hideous crimes that devastated a fragile girl’s life from the age of 14.
Incredibly, he was in court to marry his victim – with the full consent of Donna’s mother and under the authority of a state that not only sanctioned child marriage but turned a blind eye as abused children are forced into wedlock with their attackers.
Donna Pollard (pictured aged 14) was raped in the year this photo was taken by her 29-year-old counsellor and forced to marry him two years later
Indeed, that very act of matrimony helped Donna’s abuser, a mental health counsellor almost twice her age, evade charges for statutory rape under laws that only applied to younger victims and could have put him behind bars for many years.
‘I am appalled the law could allow such a thing,’ Donna told me. ‘Laws are supposed to protect victims, not the people who exploit them. Instead my life was ripped apart by a paedophile who took advantage of our marriage laws.’
Yet her terrible and tragic tale is far from unique. I spoke to several other Kentucky women who told me similar heart-rending stories of being abused as teenagers and then forced to marry their attackers. One was just 13 and pregnant when made to marry her rapist.
Donna, pictured now, is fighting back against her abuser
And there are thousands more of these disturbing cases scattered across the United States, a few involving girls not yet into their teens when forced into matrimony.
Some hail from religious communities, some from poor rural areas, some from prosperous cities.
This is the legacy of archaic laws and outdated views on teenage pregnancy.
Astonishingly, child marriage is still sanctioned in much of the United States – and some conservative politicians and libertarian activists fight to protect the practice.
Although data is incomplete, one study found that, during the first 15 years of this century, at least 207,459 minors – legally defined as those under 18 – were allowed to marry.
Almost all were girls, and most were aged 16 and 17 – but 12-year-olds received permits in three states and 13-year-olds in 14 states, including Kentucky.
In Alabama, a 74-year-old man was given a licence to marry a 14-year-old girl – yet, as in many other cases including Donna’s, this relationship would have led to a statuary rape charge and being placed on the sex offenders register had it occurred outside marriage.
Kentucky had the third-highest number of US child marriages, with 11,000 being permitted since 2000. But thanks to the efforts of Donna – who was one of those cases – a new law signed last month bans unions for people under 18 – although 17-year-olds can marry if they meet strict restrictions.
Judy Wiegand - aged just 13 - is pictured when she was forced to marry the man who had raped her
Donna’s story is horrific, although ultimately inspiring. Her father, a long-distance lorry driver, was loving but often away with work. He already had two children when, at 17, he married Donna’s mother, who was just 13 at the time and later suffered mental health problems.
Her mother was cold and violent, frequently beating her with a stick. When Donna was 13, her father died and soon after she began to fight back when attacked by her mother. As a result, she was sent to see a psychologist and ended up in a special behavioural unit for five weeks.
There, the vulnerable, lonely girl was seized upon by a 29-year-old counsellor. ‘He was very nice to me, very compassionate, making me feel special with lots of attention,’ said Donna. ‘I just wanted to please him because I wanted someone to be kind to me.’
Soon they were having secret meetings, hugs and finally sex – although she was just 14. After Donna’s release, incredibly, her own mother drove her weekly to a hotel to carry on the relationship. ‘She saw him as an exit card, a way to relieve the burden of me.’
Shortly after Donna’s 16th birthday, the counsellor’s own mother discovered what was going on and threatened to tell the police. The man whipped out a gun, threatened to kill himself, then turned it on his mother and drove her out of the house.
Within days, Donna and her abuser were before a court clerk, who did not even look up from her computer when asking who was the minor. Donna’s mother and the official signed a licence – and the troubled teenager was taken straight off to be married by a preacher to a paedophile.
Glenda Welp with the violent neighbour she was forced to marry at 14 and their daughter, Tabitha
Her school turned her away, so Donna lost a precious scholarship and her education was stymied. She was pregnant at 17, yet her controlling and violent husband forced her to work in a strip club, making her hand over wages and procure him drugs and girls.
She determined to flee after seeing her infant daughter laugh – thinking they were playing a game – while she was being throttled on the ground by her husband. ‘I went to a domestic violence centre,’ said Donna. ‘But they turned me away since I was under 18 and a minor.’
She finally escaped at 19. Remarkably, she went on to college and obtained a degree a few years later, but kept her abuse and marriage hidden even from friends while struggling with serious psychological damage, including depression and severe anxiety.
Two years ago, aged 32 and working as a health care manager, Donna decided to find out if other women had suffered similar situations and ended up talking with Jeanne Smoot from the Tahirih Justice Center, which opposes gender-based violence. ‘I told her my goal was to change the law in my home state,’ she said.
Smoot, senior counsel with the TJC, argues such cases show the urgent need for reform across the country. ‘The state is failing to recognise child abuse,’ she said. ‘These laws are the vestige of antiquated and misguided assumptions of what is in a girl’s best interests.’
Smoot added that many terrified victims went to courts