Part 1:

Married and a mother – while in middle school.

Children are being forced to marry grown men in Southwest Florida.

Parents are moving adult men into their pubescent daughters’ bedrooms, and expecting them to act as newlyweds.

An astonishing Lee County custody case has brought the issue out in the open.

The young woman’s parents and illegitimate husband came to the U.S. from Guatemala, which has one of the highest child marriage rates in Latin America.

But this young woman was born in America. Even though she went to school in Lee County and gave birth in a local hospital, her life as a child bride remained a secret, until now.

Part 2:

The case of a grown man accused of “marrying” a 13-year-old girl comes to a head as he takes a plea deal in court.

The NBC2 Investigators exposed the story last month.

A young girl, born and raised in Southwest Florida, was forced by her Guatemalan parents to marry a man in an unofficial ceremony.

She had the man’s baby when she was only 14 years old. He lived in the girl’s house with her parents from 2009 to 2015.

She escaped the situation and alerted the Lee County Sheriff’s Office in October. That’s when Antonio Juarez, now 31, was arrested.

“When I was 13, my parents made me marry a 25-year-old man,” the victim said.

The victim, who we will call Anna, did not want her real name used in our story.

“I thought it would be just for a couple days and then I realized it was gonna be forever,” Anna said.

Anna’s parents and illegitimate husband came to the U.S. from Guatemala, which has one of the highest child marriage rates in Latin America.

But Anna was born in the U.S., and even though she went to school in Lee County and gave birth in a local hospital, her life as a child bride remained a secret until she met family law attorney Toni Latino.

“When I asked her how old the father was, she said I think he’s about 32 now,” Latino said.

Anna was fighting for custody of her child, but Latino explained that her case was much larger than a custody battle.

“There are other girls in my client’s same situation that don’t know what their rights are. They don’t know that they are being subjected to an unhealthy relationship, sometimes encouraged by their own parents and this just should not continue,” Latino said.

In court Monday, Juarez was assigned a Spanish-speaking interpreter.

He confessed to having sex with the victim and was charged with lewd or lascivious battery.

As part of his plea deal, he was sentenced to 12 years of state sex offender probation, and no contact with the victim.

Part 3:

As part of the plea deal, Antonio Juarez was required to record a radio PSA warning other Guatemalan men not to marry young girls.

The PSA will be airing on local radio stations, in three different languages: English, Spanish, and Maya-Q’anjob’al.

“Nobody makes public service announcements in Maya, so that is really going to call attention to thousands of people who live around here,” said Genelle Grant, founder of the GRACE Project. They teach family and reproductive health to Latina and farm worker women in Southwest Florida.

“Arranged marriages and child brides, this is a reality here. I do believe there are more cases like this in Lee County.”

The criminal case wrapped up last month, but Grant said it shed light on a significant cultural divide.
In Guatemala, 30 percent of girls are married before the age of 18.

Juarez came to the U.S. from Guatemala, and his attorney claimed he did not know he was breaking the law when he married the young girl.

“He was completely unaware of it,” said Rene Suarez, Juarez’ defense attorney. “It’s not an excuse, but it’s the truth.”

There’s also a PSA that will be airing for girls, letting them know they don’t have to marry grown men.

Part 4:

Lawmakers are taking steps to end child marriage here in Southwest Florida after the NBC2 Investigators exposed the issue six months ago.

Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto (R-Fort Myers) and Senator Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) filed legislation that would make it illegal to issue a marriage certificate to anyone under the age of 18.

Part 5:

After our stories aired, Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto filed legislation to put an end to that practice.

The bill got its first hearing in Tallahassee on Tuesday afternoon, and it passed the judiciary committee unanimously.

Senator Benacquisto’s bill has two more committees it has to go through before it goes to the floor for a vote. If it does pass, it will take effect in July 2018.