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Advocates ask for more input, deliberation on emancipation legislation

Advocacy groups expressed support Thursday for the concept of a bill providing a path to emancipation for 16- and 17-year-olds but called for a more in-depth discussion before moving forward.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, D-Howard, introduced House Bill 1304 to assuage concerns about another proposal, HB 191, which would ban marriage for anyone younger than 18. Opponents have expressed support the latter bill if there were an emancipation option for young people who are mature and able to support themselves.

But at a hearing Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee on HB 1304, the Women’s Law Center and NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland asked for more time to consider all implications of emancipation legislation.

“I would love to see a really comprehensive group of people sit down and get it right,” said Laurie Ruth, legal director of the Women’s Law Center.

Ruth said in working with advocates who support the underage marriage ban, she has learned about the range of questions that arise when a 16- or 17-year-old can become a legal adult, from housing issues to implications of federal laws.

“It became apparent to me all the things I didn’t know in researching this bill,” Ruth said.

Though the Women’s Law Center is “favorable of the concept” of emancipation, Ruth said individuals with expertise in these areas need to be “at the table.”

NARAL Executive Director Diana Philip echoed Ruth’s concerns, citing questions about how the emancipation law would work from groups such as the Maryland Office of the Public Defender and immigration groups.

“I think everybody does want to come to the table and take some time and do this right,” she said.

HB 1304 underwent a “significant rewrite” this week and the Judiciary Committee was receiving copies of the amended bill during Thursday’s hearing.

Atterbeary outlined the provisions of the updated bill, which allows a 16- or 17-year-old to file a petition for emancipation along with documents and affidavits explaining how they will provide for their needs and a statement about why they are seeking emancipation. The bill requires the minor be given an attorney and allows the court to enter an emancipation order if it is found to be in the best interest of the petitioner.

The committee did not vote on HB 1304 nor has it voted on HB 191, which would eliminate exceptions in the law that allow children as young as 15 to marry. Atterbeary said the committee was waiting to hear testimony on the emancipation bill before voting on the marriage legislation. The cross-filed marriage bill, Senate Bill 670, also is still in committee.

“My game plan is to try to move forward with some sort of modified emancipation tied into the marriage bill so it can come out (of committee),” Atterbeary said in an interview after the hearing.

Virginia’s ban on underage marriage came tied to a “substantial emancipation bill” to address concerns like those raised in Maryland, and Atterbeary said she may attempt something similar.

“I’m willing to do some kind of emancipation if it’s well thought out,” she said.


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