By Nicole Ziege
Seated at a small table at Fantes Coffee, a quiet coffee shop on Grinstead Drive in Louisville, is Donna Pollard, now 34. Wearing a blouse covered in a pattern of small flowers, with her layered shoulder-length red hair draped over dangling hoop earrings, she drinks an iced chai latte. She just got out of an adult acting class, which she said she started taking to help her with her public speaking.
Pollard was once a child bride — an experience she began sharing in public forums two years ago, as she pushed lawmakers to pass Kentucky Senate Bill 48. The bill would put a stop to young girls being married off like she had been in Kentucky, which had the third highest number of child marriages in the country between 2000 and 2015.
The bill prohibited marriage for children under 17 and required a judge’s approval for 17 year olds to get married. On March 29, 2018, the bill was signed into law by Gov. Matt Bevin; it will go into effect in July 2018.
“This is something that I have been working very hard on for the past couple of years,” said Pollard, speaking in an unwavering tone of voice.
Pollard’s story begins in the rural town of Somerset, Kentucky, which was one of several towns she lived in throughout her childhood, due to her mother frequently moving her and her family around. Pollard lived with her sister Julie Roberts, now 44, of Louisville, until Roberts was 17 years old and went to college. As a child, Roberts described Pollard as active and outgoing.
“I just remember a big personality, always very curious about things,” said Roberts, who is 10 years older than Pollard. “She was always kind of coming up with her own projects to do, whether that be singing, acting, joking around or writing. There was always something or multiple things she was focusing her attention on.”
Pollard was an unplanned pregnancy when her mother had her when she was in her 40s, and she did not feel loved by her mother growing up. For trivial accidents she caused, like grabbing half a gallon milk from the refrigerator, dropping it and spilling it all over the floor, she said her mother would yell at her and beat her.
“Growing up, I was just constantly in fear,” said Pollard.
Pollard’s father also lived with her and her mother during her childhood, but he spent a lot of time traveling for work. While they never formed a profound relationship as father and daughter, they would play Checkers and UNO together. He also had, on several occasions, taken her to the skating rink where he would sit and watch her skate around.
When Pollard was around 13 years old, she and her parents moved to Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Her father was terminally diagnosed with advanced-stage lung cancer, and she was forced to take care of him by herself. He died when she was 14 years old, leaving her in an extremely vulnerable state because of the grief and trauma she experienced from losing him.
Because she could not cope with the grief of losing her father, in May of 1998, when she was 14 years old, Pollard was admitted into a short-term care facility called Lincoln Trail Behavior Health System in Radcliff, Kentucky. After a few weeks, she was moved to a long-term care facility in Jeffersonville, Indiana, because her condition was not improving. It was at this facility where she met her future husband.
He was a 29-year-old mental health technician. During her time in the facility, he consistently made excuses to be close to her, while also writing her letters and arranging for them to meet in more secluded areas. The day after she was released, he called her and professed his love for her.
Her mother began driving her halfway between Jeffersonville, Indiana, where he lived, and London, Kentucky, which was where she lived at the time, in order for them to start a relationship.
While a freshman and sophomore at South Laurel High School in London, Kentucky, Pollard said the man made her call him during her lunch breaks on the school’s payphone in the lobby, checking up on her to ease his jealousy.
“At the time, I thought, ‘Oh, it’s because he loves me so much,’ but really it was his way of controlling me,” said Pollard, reflecting on her relationship. “He was extremely jealous. He was concerned that I would end up dating a boy my age. Any spare time I had, when I wasn’t in class, I had to spend on the phone with him.”
During their relationship, he purchased clothes for her to wear, had her begin smoking marijuana when she was 15 years old and constantly looked for ways she had failed.
“At the time, I thought that was because he loved me,” said Pollard.
When she was 16 years old, her mother drove with her to a courthouse in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where he, now 31 years old, came prepared with paperwork for the marriage license, including her birth certificate. Pollard’s mother signed to give parental consent for the marriage, and Pollard said the clerk would not make eye contact with her.
“Something told me at that point, ‘This is not right,’ but I did not trust myself,” said Pollard.
When they were married, Pollard and her husband moved to an apartment complex in Clarksville, Indiana, where she hoped to enroll in Clarksville High School, which was just up the road from her apartment complex. However, her hopes of continuing her high school education were dashed after school officials informed her that she would not be allowed to attend their school because she was married.
“They told me that it was only a matter of time before I would become pregnant and have to be a parent, and the students that were there wouldn’t understand,” Pollard said. “They just could not have me at their school. That was a huge slap in the face.”
Pollard wanted to get her GED, but the age requirement to take and earn a GED is 18 years old. Therefore, when she was 16 years old, she began working full time at the Greyhound Grocery in Clarksville, Indiana, earning minimum wage. While she was employed at the grocery store, however, an extremely dangerous situation occurred with her husband—one that left her questioning the safety of the relationship into which she had been manipulated.
Pollard was invited to an evening at Texas Roadhouse by a few of her coworkers from Greyhound Grocery. While they were there, she did not have enough money to pay for her own meal, and one male coworker insisted on buying her a sandwich from the restaurant. Pollard returned to the apartment she shared with her husband, unaware of the effect that the innocent gesture would have on him.
“I thought [my husband] would be more upset over the fact that I had spent money so it was almost like a relief of, ‘Wow, I didn’t spend money. My food was paid for,’” said Pollard.
He was livid over what she had done. The following day, Pollard said she came home during her lunch break—only to discover the unthinkable: Passed out and lying in the bathtub was her husband, a half-empty bottle of Southern Comfort sitting beside him on the floor and surrounded by scattered Tylenol PM pills which blended into a blue bathroom rug. He had staged his first suicide attempt.
It was while describing the specific moment of finding him in the bathtub and noticing his behavior immediately afterward that words to depict the situation seemed to leave Pollard’s vocabulary because for the first time, she said, “I don’t even know how to describe it.”
“Once he got himself out of the tub, he was belligerent, completely incoherent,” Pollard said.
She believed that his attempted suicide was completely her doing. However, with that guilt also came what she called “a moment of intuition.”
“I felt like, ‘This is him really being upset over what I did,’ but at the same time, I had the same type of intuition that his response was not right, but I didn’t trust myself,” Pollard said.
When she was 16 years old, after that incident, Pollard drove to a women’s domestic violence shelter for refuge, and she was turned away because she not yet 18 years old. She then tried to rent an apartment from multiple apartment complexes, but she was also turned away because she was not yet 18 years old and could not legally enter into a contract with them. She was legally trapped.
When she was 19 years old, she left him and got an apartment on her own. She left behind her oldest daughter, the child she had had with him, in order to give herself her best chance. When Pollard was 20 years old, the divorce was finalized.
After her divorce, Pollard started rebuilding her life, finding stable employment and getting into another relationship. However, she did not tell anyone about what she had experienced as a teenager, except for a select number of people who were closest to her, and it took a while for her to begin healing from the trauma she had experienced from her previous marriage.
“After over 10 years of this, I felt like I was suffocating because even just the simplest questions like, ‘Where did you graduate high school?’ I couldn’t answer that,” said Pollard. “I was so tired of feeling like I could not be myself and that there was something so severely wrong with me.”
She received her GED and later graduated from Mid-Continent University in 2013 while she worked full-time. She married for a second time, though her mother did not attend her second marriage, and she had her youngest daughter Willow. After the end of her second marriage, Pollard began searching for organizations that she could partner with to begin advocacy work.
In July 2016, she found the Tahirih Justice Center, which is a national non-profit organization that began in 1997 and focuses on legal services and advocacy work to protect girls and women from violence, including domestic abuse, child marriage and human trafficking. On the center’s website, there was a request for survivors of child marriage to tell their stories, and Pollard decided to contact them. She came in contact with Jeanne Smoot, who is the senior counsel for public policy and strategy at Tahirih Justice Center.
“From the first time she reached out to us, we were struck by much self-reflection she had done and how sharply she had identified the ways in which her marriage at such a young age had enabled some pretty extreme abuse and exploitation to happen, and had also handicapped her to get out of that situation on her own until she had gotten past age 18,” said Smoot, also describing Pollard as “eloquent” in the way she spoke.
Smoot, who has worked for the Tahirih Justice Center for 15 years, worked with Pollard on a legislative campaign in Kentucky in order to stop marriage for those who were under the age of 18 years old.
Kentucky previously had some of the most relaxed laws in the United States regarding marriage for anyone younger than 18 years old, including a pregnancy exception for girls younger than age 16 and no bottom-line age for marriage.
Smoot said having a survivor who come forward from Kentucky who could “demonstrate personally” awhat the impact of the change would be was important to getting the bill to ban child marriages passed. That survivor was Pollard.
“It was one of the states that had some of the worst laws or combinations of laws and exceptions in the country,” said Smoot, regarding Kentucky’s child marriage laws and exceptions.
Smoot and Pollard spoke in person over a dozen times prior to and during the legislative campaign, and they spoke over the phone about two or three times each day, consulting with one another on the support of the coalitions they would need and what the bill would consist of. The bill was endorsed by Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Kentucky Youth Advocates, the National Association of Social Workers-Kentucky Chapter, and The Family Foundation of Kentucky.
Without Pollard’s willingness to come forward about her experience as a child marriage survivor, Smoot said taking on the legislative campaign and getting the bill passed would not have been possible.
“It is harder to move forward a campaign on an issue like this without a survivor advocate with it being central to the undertaking, and I think it’s not the right way to go about advocacy,” said Smoot.
Smoot said that as they began the campaign to create the bill, Pollard referred to her frequently with questions rather than trusting her own instincts. When Pollard had begun testifying on the impact of the bill and her own experiences before the Kentucky legislature, Smoot said she began trusting her own instincts more and gaining confidence in herself. Rather than asking her for help, Pollard started making suggestions for the next steps in the campaign, which Smoot felt was an inevitable step in her growth as an advocate.
“I was so pleased to see that,” said Smoot, regarding Pollard’s growth as an advocate. “When I first met her, I knew that she was a natural at this work.”
When the bill was signed into law by Gov. Bevin, Pollard said she was ecstatic because she had been frequently told that the bill would never pass during the session of the Kentucky legislature. She now hopes to take her advocacy work to states like Ohio and Tennessee to end child marriage.
“I’m just glad that now in the state of Kentucky, we won’t have other children who are subjected to the type of exploitation that I went through,” said Pollard.