New law brings adoptee birth date information into accord

Dan and Jennifer Shultz with daughter Agape and son Justice. When Agape was adopted from Congo, she was said to be 4, but it was clear that she was much older than that.
Dan and Jennifer Shultz with daughter Agape and son Justice. When Agape was adopted from Congo, she was said to be 4, but it was clear that she was much older than that. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 07, 2014

When Jennifer and Dan Shultz adopted a daughter from Africa in November 2012, they brought home a bright and beautiful little girl.

They also brought a Congolese birth certificate that was almost certainly incorrect.

It said their daughter, Agape, was born in December 2007, making her 4. The couple's doctor and dentist said that was impossible - that Agape's size and growth showed she was likely 7.

That discrepancy created all sorts of complications, and threatened to generate more, for Agape and for others like her: older children adopted from chaotic foreign lands where paperwork can be wrong, but who are growing up in a country where an accurate birth date is key to everything from school placements to passports and Social Security.

The Shultzes, who live in Oxford, Chester County, said the local school system initially declined to admit Agape, relying on her flawed birth certificate.

"They said she was too young," Dan said.

"We felt kind of tossed around," added Jennifer. "It's not a 4-year-old we brought home."

Oxford Area School District officials declined to comment, saying privacy laws prevented them from discussing the admission of a particular child. A spokesperson pointed to district policies that say no child may enter school before age 5.

Now, a three-sentence piece of legislation promises to make volumes of difference for children like Agape, for whom firm birth dates are elusive.

Last month, President Obama signed the Accuracy for Adoptees Act, which brings competing birth information into accord by requiring federal agencies to honor more factual birth dates as determined by state courts.

"It's about time," said Adam Pertman, president of the Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York  . "It doesn't serve anyone's interest when their birth date is wrong. It certainly doesn't serve the interest of the children."

It can be difficult for Americans to grasp that someone might not know their birthday. But it happens in countries where baby girls are abandoned because of their gender, and where disease and war leave school-age children orphaned.

When a baby is discovered at a bus stop or park bench, common in places such as China, orphanage administrators can make a good guess about her age. Not so for an older child.

"You have no background," said Haddonfield attorney Donald Cofsky, president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, which pushed for the new law, "so you have no idea what the age might be."

Orphanage operators may set low ages on paperwork because younger children are more adoptable. In places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there's an added economic incentive: It costs money to send children to school, so orphanages can save if children are listed as too young to attend.

When the Shultzes arrived in Congo with other American families, "we realized very quickly that the children were all older than what we had been told," Jennifer said.

Cofsky said he and his colleagues have seen dozens of similar cases in Philadelphia and South Jersey.

"For those that have the problem, it's a big problem," he said. "It shouldn't happen to even one kid."

Adopting families always had the right to marshal medical, educational, and dental evidence and ask a state court to support a new and more accurate birthday. The problem was that federal agencies did not accept the amended dates.

So children ended up with one date on federal records such as Social Security, and another on state documents such as a driver's license.

The issue has become more urgent as the U.S. government focuses on data to help police borders and protect citizens, and gained wider notice as the once-stable world of international adoption turns upside down.

For more than a decade, the "Big Three" sending countries of China, Russia, and Guatemala dominated, together accounting for two-thirds of all foreign adoptions. Now those lands have shrunk the pool of potential parents, reduced the number of children who may be adopted, or closed their programs entirely.

The impact: international adoptions dropped 62 percent in eight years, from 22,991 in 2004 to 8,668 in 2012.

That's pushed American couples toward less-established programs in smaller nations, places in which foreign adoption is relatively new and untested.

Ethiopia, where nearly 80 percent of the population earns less than $2 a day, has shot up to become the world's second-largest sending country, behind only China. Ukraine has cracked the top five.

Congo, too, was growing. After a decade of sending about seven children a year here, Congo completed 133 adoptions in 2011 and 240 the next year.

The children tend to be older. Twenty-four percent are over 5, compared with 16 percent worldwide.

In September, the program stalled when Congo officials stopped issuing exit permits to adopted children who sought to leave the country with their new parents. It's unknown when or if adoptions will resume.

After 14 months in Chester County, Agape has grown six inches and gained 20 pounds. She's chatty, inquisitive, eager to meet new people, and, at the moment, loud - banging on a drum during a family jam session on the living-room floor.

She's amazed by the ocean. Loves snow and swimming. And most of all, loves her little brother, Justice, born 19 months ago to Jennifer and Dan.

"Seeing both of my children interacting gives me hope for the world - the joy in their eyes," Jennifer said.

When Agape arrived, she spoke Lingala and a little French. Today her English vocabulary is large and growing.

Ask Agape her age, and she holds up eight fingers.

"She's a people person," said Dan, a registered nurse at Christiana Care Health System.

Her homeland is a place of great beauty and terrible human suffering, crushing poverty compounded by two decades of civil war, where soldiers have killed civilians, burned villages, and forcibly recruited children as troops.

Agape - her name means "unconditional love" - was found on a roadside and taken to an orphanage in the capital of Kinshasa, one of an estimated 230,000 children who have lost one or both parents, according to UNICEF.

At the orphanage, set in a small house with a gate out front, it's unclear how often she was able to eat.

In September, the Shultzes gathered Agape's records from three dentists, a family doctor, and doctors at the International Adoption Team at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Then they headed to Chester County Court.

A judge signed an order that formally moved Agape's birthday from 2007 to 2005. After that, the Shultzes said, the schools admitted Agape, though the couple later decided to homeschool.

The court order doesn't alter the original birth certificate, and until the passage of the Accuracy Act, it was unclear which agencies or governments might recognize which document when it came time for Agape to drive or vote.

"This legislation will finally give these children and their families some peace of mind," said Virginia adoption lawyer Karen Law, a leader in the adoption-attorneys academy.

Jennifer Shultz said the change will help families focus on bigger issues - for them, helping Agape heal from trauma and loss.

"Those are the things we need to be sorting through," Shultz said. "Making it easier for the true age to be reflected on the birth certificate is a huge thing. . . . This is what we were praying would happen."


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906

@JeffGammage

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