NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Pregnant at 15 and married a year later to her youth pastor, Ashley Pereira still sees how the consequences of her child marriage impact her to this day.
She now lives just outside of Nashville, where she shares custody with the man who she claimed forced her into marriage shortly after impregnating her. Jason Greathouse, 24 at the time, and Pereira, 14, lived in their hometown of Enterprise, Alabama. Fifteen years and last month later, Greathouse agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He received a one-year suspended sentence and probation.
Greathouse was not required to register as a sex offender, so at this point, Pereira understood she may have to continue sharing custody of their child.
“You could put our ages together and our child’s age. There’s the crime, but no one was actually taking it seriously unless he was convicted,” Pereira said.
Prosecutors in Alabama explained to Pereira that because she had been married to Greathouse, they weren’t sure a jury would return a conviction. She may not have the justice she’s been searching for, but Pereira has no regrets over speaking out.
She's seen 12 different neurologists and multiple emergency rooms to better understand her trauma. Pereira said she bottled in the pain for years, because she couldn't afford to make time to heal. She was raising a child practically on her own, and becoming an adult at the same time.
“I still don’t have all the right answers. I can’t say this is why it happened and sugarcoat things to make things okay. That’s the hardest part,” Pereira said.
Greathouse was like a mentor for the 14-year-old, who at the time was pulled from school. It made sense that when he was strapped for money, the family invited the youth pastor to move in. That’s when Pereira said their bond and mentorship turned into something far more sinister. One thing led to another and she lost her virginity to Greathouse in the family home.
Pereira says her mother wasn’t angry and made no attempts to throw Greathouse out of the home when she found out. Her parents insisted the two get married, so they did with parental consent.
“That was it. It was my responsibility to make things work since I decided to give my body to somebody, but I was a child,” Pereira said.
The marriage lasted no more than a year before Pereira filed for divorce. By now she felt alienated from her family, so there was no returning to her parents. She emancipated herself to get an apartment, go to college and get a bank account.
“I wasn’t 18. I was a minor, so I would’ve ended up in foster care had I not emancipated myself from my family,” Pereira said.
Getting out of forced marriage remains one of the biggest challenges for the more than 300,000 minors married between 2000 and 2018, according to Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last. Almost all are younger women, marrying much older men.
Across the country, only six states have banned marriage for anyone under 18.
Thirty five states — including Alabama and Tennessee — make an exception if you have a parent's signature from both parties. Four states offer similar exceptions for minors at 15 and 14, meanwhile, nine states have no minimum age requirements at all.
“In Tennessee and across the United States, this is a significant problem,” Reiss said.
As founder of Unchained at Last, Reiss has testified in both Alabama, Tennessee, and several other state legislatures.
“Some of the stories that we’ve heard particularly out of Tennessee are the kind of stories that keep you awake at night,” Reiss said.
Child marriage — by definition — is any marriage where at least one person is under 18. Up until 2018, nothing was preventing any underage person in Tennessee from getting married as long as they had a signature from both parents and a judge.
State Sen. Jeff Yarbro and State Rep. Darren Jernigan both co-signed bills to bring the minimum age to 18 in Tennessee.
“What was on our books as marriage were just child abuse,” Yarbro said.
Much of the pushback from legislators centered around the notion that many of us are likely products of child marriage.
“There were anecdotes where people said they married their wives 40 years ago and were 16 or 17 at the time. Look if you want to get married, go down to the church and get married. As far as the state recognizing you, you need to be 18-years-old because you’re entering into a contract,” Jernigan said.
Many legislators were willing to pass a law on marriage age limits, but not if it meant leaving no room for exceptions. Legislators compromised by at least setting the minimum age at 17.
Any laws making exceptions for those under 18 mean child marriage still exists in Tennessee and 44 other states.
Yarbro and Jernigan said they have no issue bringing this back to the table, but the problem is that it’s only been three years. Many of those same opposing voices haven’t left, the two said.
“I think at the end of the day, we took the legislature as far as it was willing to go at that moment in time,” Yarbro said.