Mom: My Ex Orchestrated Our Teen’s Marriage to Win Custody Battle
Child custody disputes are known to get dramatic. But Erin Carver, a 52-year-old mother of three, says her ex-husband took it to the extreme, marrying off their 16-year-old daughter in a “sham marriage” so that she could relocate with him to Florida.
Now, she’s asking the Idaho Supreme Court to stop it.
“You think of all the things that marriage represents: You think of the white dress and the first time you call yourself a wife and all those special things,” Carver told The Daily Beast.
“I hope the Supreme Court reverses this, and they have the power to wipe this off of her record … [and] maybe give her back that sparkle of the white dress and the ring,” she added later.
“Maybe they give that back to her, because I want to give that back.”
Carver and her ex-husband, William Hornish, were married in Florida in 2000 and moved to Idaho about a decade later. When they divorced in 2012, the court gave them joint custody of their then 7-year-old daughter and her older sister. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Carver described her daughter as a “good kid,” and said they had always enjoyed a good relationship—until this summer, when everything changed.
In her brief for the Supreme Court, Carver claims her ex-husband suddenly announced his plans to relocate to Florida for work and bring their younger daughter with him, without adequate notice or permission from the court. She told The Daily Beast the whole process—from when he notified her of the move to when he relocated their daughter across the country—took approximately a week. “It seems like it was out of the blue,” she said. (Hornish’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.)
Hornish argues in court documents that his daughter wanted to move to Florida and that she often missed school and used marijuana when she was living with her mother. Carver denies that she allowed their daughter to skip school and use drugs, but admits that her daughter did want to leave with her father—lured, she says, by promises of “beaches and bikinis.” She says she just wanted the teen to finish her education in Idaho first.
Carver filed a motion for criminal contempt against her ex-husband in July, noting the hours of parenting time she had missed by his sudden relocation. And she asked the court to bring her daughter back, which it eventually did. The teenager was living with her at home when Carver received a Facebook message from Joan O’Donoughue, a neighbor of Hornish in Florida, with a troubling allegation.
In a sworn court declaration, O’Donoughue says that she is a mother of an 18-year-old-boy who went to kindergarten with Carver’s daughter. In mid-October of last year, she claims, her son told her that Carver’s daughter had contacted him with a proposition for marriage. She would help him pass his online classes and graduate high school, she allegedly promised; in exchange, she could become emancipated and move to Florida.
O’Donoughue claims that when she called Hornish, he admitted to trying to marry off his daughter in order to emancipate her.
“I told him it was crazy, unethical and immoral to cheat the system,” O’Donoughue wrote. “I told him he shouldn’t be teaching children how to cheat the system or cheat in their education.”
Carver’s daughter was 16 years old when she allegedly reached out to O’Donoghue’s son about marriage—still a child in the eyes of the law and many in society. But the marriage of children under 18 is still legal in the vast majority of U.S. states, provided a parent or judge consents to it. One study, conducted by anti-child marriage nonprofit Unchained at Last, found nearly 300,000 minors were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018.
Fraidy Reiss, the executive director of Unchained at Last, told The Daily Beast she usually hears from survivors who were forced into marriage by both of their parents. (The Daily Beast documented one such case last year.) But her organization has long warned about the potential for child marriage to be used as a cudgel in custody cases such as this one.
“This is what we’ve been warning for years, and now here’s your primary example,” she said. “A parent can too easily use that to their own advantage in a divorce preceding.”
When Carver learned of her ex-husband’s alleged plan to marry off their daughter, she says she was so horrified she had to pull her car over. The next day, she filed a petition with the court to suspend Hornish’s ability to consent to their daughter’s marriage.
The judge did not see the order until a week later, on Nov. 5, when he was prepping files for a hearing on the case. He signed the order immediately, later explaining in court that he felt there could potentially be “irreparable harm or damage to the child if the court did not grant it.”
But it was too late. On Nov. 1, Carver’s daughter was married to a teenager in Caldwell, Idaho, whom Carver says she has never met or spoken to. The teenager was emancipated that day.
Given her daughter’s new status, an Ada County Magistrate Court judge ruled that he had no choice but to dismiss Carver’s petition for custody. But he did grant her petition to appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court, ruling that the “best interests of the child would be served by an immediate appeal to the Supreme Court.”
In a hearing on Friday, Carver’s attorney told the court that the marriage should never have been allowed, given that the judge would have enforced her petition if he had seen it in time. He asked the justices to allow that petition to be enforced retroactively, which could result in the marriage being invalidated. Hornish’s lawyer, meanwhile, argued that the court had no authority to do so, and that retroactively enforcing the petition would be a violation of his client’s rights.
At one point, the justices appeared to grow frustrated with Hornish’s lawyer, asking whether he had any evidence that the teenager’s marriage had been anything other than a sham designed to evade a court order.
“How does the other parent ever protect their right to prevent this type of thing?” Justice Robyn Brody asked incredulously. “Do we have to now put in our divorce decrees … [that] one parent cannot consent to the marriage of this child? That’s going to become a regular part of our jurisprudence?”
Hornish’s lawyer responded that maybe it would.
Carver hopes that the outcome of the case will be different, and that it will instead help constrain the powers of one parent to consent to a child’s marriage. While she wants the Court to help reverse her daughter’s marriage, she said, she also wants to help other families caught in the same situation.
“With one signature, my ex-husband was able to strip me of my parental rights, strip me of my constitutional rights,” she said. “He handcuffed the judge, he was actively deciding on where our child could be.”
She added: “But that’s way too much power, and that should never be allowed.”