LOUISVILLE — According to the federal government, two sisters in rural Kentucky do not exist.
The women weren't born in a hospital, never went to public school and only recently obtained birth certificates after they sued the state. Still, that's not enough for Raechel and Stephanie Schultz to land legitimate jobs. The sisters need Social Security numbers, so they have sued the federal government.
"No one has ever heard of anything like this before," said their attorney, Douglas Benge. "When the girls first came to see me, it's one of those things of, 'What do I do now?'"
The Schultz sisters live with their parents in Lily, near the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, in a county that includes the Daniel Boone National Forest and is known as the home of the first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant started by Col. Harland Sanders. Their family doesn't have a phone, and their attorney gets in touch with them by calling an out-of-state relative, who in turn contacts the family.
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Raechel Schultz, 29, was born in Madison County, about an hour or so away from where they live now. Stephanie, 23, was born in Sanford, Ala. Both were delivered at the family's home because of their religious beliefs, though Benge didn't know specifically what those were.
The births were recorded in a family Bible that has been marked up through the years, but some of the changes and deletions didn't pass muster with the Kentucky Office of Vital Statistics, Benge said.
That led the women to sue for birth certificates. In 2009, Laurel Circuit Judge John Knox Mills ordered DNA testing to prove the women were the children of American citizens. On Feb. 19, 2010, Mills ordered the state to issue birth certificates.
"The court has no reason to not believe the testimony and finds no reason to suggest the plaintiffs are seeking this relief for an illegal or immoral purpose," Mills wrote.
When the sisters went to get Social Security cards that year, they were again denied. The Social Security Administration, in a letter, told the women "you have not given us documents we need to show U.S. citizenship."
Benge accompanied the women on a second trip to the Social Security office in May but got the same result — not enough documentation to issue a card.
Frank Viera, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration in Atlanta, declined to comment on the lawsuit or the sisters' dilemma, citing privacy restrictions. On its Web site, the agency lists a variety of documents that may be used to prove identity, age and U.S. citizenship. The accepted records include a birth certificate, driver's license, state-issued identification card or U.S. passport, so it's not clear exactly why they haven't been able to get a number.
Robert Bruce, who retired as a district manager after 31 years with the Social Security Administration, said the age of the women combined with the lack of official documentation raises a suspicion of fraud.
Most people, by their 20s, have school and vaccination records or some kind of government identification, said Bruce, who retired in Portland, Ore., in 2005.
"Out of 330 million Americans, there's probably a few people who didn't do anything" to get official documents, said Bruce, who now runs a Web site from Murrieta, Calif., that helps people navigate Social Security benefits.
In what Benge described as a desperation move, the women tried to get U.S. passports with their birth certificates. They met the same results.
"The girls spent a small fortune just to get legal," Benge said. "I kind of feel sorry for them."