On the morning of October 19, 1983, Trevicia Williams' goal was to land the role of Annie in the school play. The 14-year-old ninth-grader wore red knickers to school that day to try and look the part for her audition.
Nearly 34 years later, she remembers these details so well because it turned out to be the day she got married. As she'd later testify to Texas legislators, Trevicia exited her Houston-based high school shortly after 3 p.m, hands filled with textbooks, and walked toward her mother's car. She got in the backseat as her mother turned around and said, "You're getting married today."
Trevicia sat there shell-shocked but didn't ask questions. She didn't protest at all. She was nervous and confused, but she'd learned the hard way that when her mother spoke, she listened. So she sat there during the quiet, 45-minute drive from her high school to the county courthouse and thought logistically.
"I had to quickly switch from student to, Okay, I'm going to become a bride today," Trevicia says. "I didn't know what I was going to do; there was no discussion about after the marriage, where we would live, or anything like that."
A Troubled Marriage
Her husband-to-be, Will*, was 26 years old at the time of their marriage. Given their 12-year age difference, intercourse outside of wedlock would have been considered statutory rape. While this might sound like an extreme circumstance, it's actually a classic example of forced child marriage in the United States to this day: Forty-thousand child marriages (defined as marriage under the age of 18), occurred in Texas between 2000 to 2014, most of them to adult men, according to the Tahirih Justice Center. But this isn't just a Texas issue — it's happening across the country. Unchained at Last, a group that aims to ban child marriage in the U.S., estimates that as many as 250,000 child marriages occurred between 2000 and 2010, in some states at a rate of one per day, according to its survey of available marriage license data in all 50 states. And while child marriage numbers are falling, it is still possible in the United States because certain states allow minors to marry with permission from parents, a judge or both.
In Trevicia's case, her mom signed the paperwork. "I didn't have a say, I felt compelled to go along with it, and so it was," she says.
Her marriage was troubled from the start. Will was in and out of jobs, and Trevicia was still going to school every day. "Not only was this abnormal and awkward, but this man didn't have a way of providing basic needs for me like food, shelter or water," she says. Within 30 days of her marriage, her then-husband hit her, and when she asked her mother if she could return home, her mother said no, according to the testimony Trevicia gave years later. With nowhere else to turn, Trevicia and Will ended up sleeping on the floor of the church of a missionary who helped her mother arrange the marriage. By then, it was late November, and there was no heat in the building to keep them warm. She says she turned to her faith in God to get through those nights.
Eventually, they moved to Pasadena, Texas, where Will had found a job in construction. Trevicia rode the bus 25 miles each way from Pasadena to Aldine High School so she could continue her education. But by 1984, at 15 years old, she became pregnant.
"I was experiencing so much morning sickness, I threw up on the cafeteria table, and all the students were like, 'Eww, gross!'" she recalls. She asked to be transferred to a school for pregnant girls but didn't tell her teachers about her marriage. "I think the teachers just thought I was some pregnant teen," she says. Trevicia was angry and frustrated much of the time. "School was so important to me, and that was just completely interrupted, and now I was having to take on the role of being a mom," she says.
After Trevicia's daughter was born, they along with Will moved yet again, this time to eastern Texas. Later, Will made a trip back to Houston, claiming he needed to pick up a few more of their things, but he never returned. Trevicia learned that he'd been having an affair with a 21-year-old neighbour back in Houston, and he was sent to jail on a sexual assault charge from that relationship. Trevicia was 16 by this point, her daughter just about one. But she wasn't free yet.
Taking Back Her Life
Trevicia had to wait another year, she was told before she was even able to file for divorce. "That was the legal age that I was told I had to wait for," she explains. (In actuality, married minors in Texas can file for their own divorce, because they are automatically considered adults after they marry. In other states, too, married minors can get a divorce, though they may need to rely on an adult to file on their behalf. But many minors don't know their legal rights or how to find accurate information or help to leave the marriage or violent homes.) "It took one day to get out, but three years to get to that day."
Trevicia's nightmare turned around after Will went to jail. Just after turning 18, she saw a sign: Now Hiring Correctional Officers: $18,000 a Year. "I didn't have to think long — the salary was what I needed as a single mom in 1986," she says. She applied for it and interviewed with a prison captain, who told her if she didn't hear back within a year, she'd need to re-apply. Eleven months later, just short of that deadline, Trevicia got a letter in the mail: She got the job. She reported for boot camp and was later assigned to the men's death row unit at the Texas Depart of Criminal Justice (then called the Texas Department of Corrections) in Huntsville, Texas. She later learned that Will was serving out his sentence within the same system, in a different unit. While the wife of a co-worker cared for her daughter, Trevicia worked the night shift there for four years while pursuing a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.
Shortly before graduating, she saw a television commercial for paralegal school in Houston, about 70 miles away from Huntsville. "I decided I was going to be up to working all night and driving to Houston four days a week to earn that degree," she says. "I'd have to pull over many times because I was so sleepy, but I did it and I graduated after eight months." That got her out of the prison system, and she moved with her daughter back to Houston, where she worked as a paralegal. "I was around lawyers, right where I wanted to be," she says. Still earning her bachelor's degree, the subject of psychology resonated. "I saw how many hours those lawyers were working every week, 80 to 100 hours a week, easy, and I just wasn't willing to be away from my daughter for that length of time," she says. So Trevicia went into behavioural science and earned her Ph.D. in psychology.
"My faith and my education got me where I am today," she says. Now 47, she is an advocate for Texas to ban child marriage. After her testimony in front of of the Texas state legislature in April 2017, Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill that prohibits a person under 18 from marrying unless a judge consents, and prohibits anyone under 16 from getting married.
"Trevicia's courage and resolve put a face to the issue of forced underage marriage in Texas," says Texas Senator Van Taylor, who authored the bill signed by Governor Abbott. "Her story was integral to passing this important legislation."
Just this week, New York followed suit. Governor Andrew Cuomo raised the minimum age to marry in New York from 14 to 17. However, in May, Governor Chris Christie blocked similar legislation in New Jersey. Christie said in a statement following the decision, "An exclusion without exceptions would violate the cultures and traditions of some communities in New Jersey-based on religious traditions." He believes exceptions should remain for consensual 16 and 17-year-olds.
But Trevicia urges people to remember that many child marriages, though parents may arrange them, are forced. "When a parent is abusing their power to parent, and a child doesn't have a voice, then states have to protect the child," Trevicia says. "Childhood is for learning and building their character so they are prepared for adulthood. It's not for devotion to a man."
Trevicia has faith that change will happen, just like she turned to her faith to get her through her adolescent years. "I know that the church is within — so many people are bashing Christianity today, but I am such a strong example of what strong faith can do for you," she says. "You have to reach for something higher for something like this. There's no drug, no alcohol, no relationship that is strong enough to bring you through something so horrific."