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Age-old immigrant marriage customs face new scrutiny

The case is unusual: A Fargo father accused of trying to kidnap a 14-year-old Kentucky bride-to-be for his teenage son.

But a variety of area agencies have contended for years with a custom among some local immigrants to marry daughters and sons very young. The practice springs from the culture of Roma immigrants from Bosnia and other Balkan countries.

Efforts by Fargo police and other groups to stress the legal repercussions of keeping that custom alive in America have had mixed results: Some families are holding off until their children are 16, when the couple can wed legally with their parents' consent. Others are keeping traditional ceremonies under wraps. And, in rare cases, girls are rebelling against the custom.

Many Roma do not agree with the practice of early arranged marriages. In any case, snatching a girl without her parents' consent -- as was allegedly the case in the Kentucky incident -- is uncommon.

"The parents often get together and come to an agreement," said Cristie Jacobsen, a cultural liaison officer with Fargo police. "It rarely escalates to this point where they would take the girl without the parents' knowledge."

The man arrested Tuesday by Bowling Green, Ky., police asked for a Bosnian translator during a previous run-in with Fargo police. It's not clear if he's Roma.

The issue is a sore spot for area Bosnians who aren't Roma, who say they do not condone the custom and feel that it's unfairly giving all area Bosnians a bad name.

Jacobsen said Roma families might arrange marriages for girls as young as 14 or 15 and boys just a few years older. Often, there's a dowry involved, sometimes in the thousands of dollars.

Hatidza Asovic, a coordinator at the Metro Interpreter Resource Center, said these marriages are rooted in customs dating back centuries.

Asovic explained that at the heart of the custom is a powerful stigma attached to a girl who has sex outside of marriage and a sense that early marriage protects girls against a life of promiscuity and ruin.

"They don't want to have a little Britney Spears running loose," she said. "At least these Roma teens have parental supervision."

Fargo police and the Interpreter Resource Center both try to impress upon parents that they can run afoul of the law. They also tell girls they can choose their spouse in this coun-try and urge them to stay in school.

In 2004, the Cass County state's attorney charged two sets of parents with encouraging the deprivation of a minor because of sexual relations between their married children, ages 15 and 20. That case and education efforts have made an impression. Some families have become more patient, others simply more discreet.

"Now they fully understand it's illegal; they're more savvy about being quiet about it," Jacobsen said. "So in some ways, you could say our education is having an effect, just not necessarily the effect we hope."

Immigrant advocates are especially concerned about the custom because young brides tend to drop out of school. A few years ago, the Fargo Public School District tracked graduations by ethnicity. Virtually no Roma Bosnian girls graduated, Assistant Super-intendent Lowell Wolff said.

"They were marrying much younger and dropping out," he said.

But both Asovic and Jacobsen said they haven't heard of cases where girls are taken against parents' will. Generally, Asovic said, friends and neighbors will check with the girl's family to make sure they're open to a union. Only then will the father of the boy approach them.

"It's a big humiliation if the groom is denied," she said. "But in most cases, that doesn't happen here."