U.S. knew about abandoned children, but did not check for more than a week

Saturday, August 21st 2004, 10:06 am
By: News On 6

HOUSTON (AP) _ U.S. State Department officials learned that seven American children had been abandoned at a Nigerian orphanage but waited more than a week to check on the youths, who were suffering from malnutrition, malaria and typhoid, a newspaper reported Saturday.

A person whom the State Department would only identify as a ``local contact'' in Nigeria told the consulate in Lagos about the children on July 30, The Dallas Morning News reported.

But a consular official saw the children for the first time on Aug. 7 _ two days after House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn intervened at request of a missionary who found them on Aug. 4.

State Department spokeswoman Kelly Shannon said she did not know why it took so long for a consular official to personally check the Nigerian government's assurances that the three boys and four girls were safe and well cared for.

``We had no indication that they were in any physical danger,'' Shannon said.

The children, ages 8 to 16, were returned to Houston last week and are now in foster homes.

The lawyer for their adoptive mother, 47-year-old Mercury Liggins, said the children were abandoned by the woman's brother-in-law while she was in Iraq as a contract food-service employee supporting U.S. troops.

Liggins told a judge she was desperate to visit the children but could not get a visa to enter Nigeria, the Houston Chronicle reported Saturday.

``I didn't just abandon my children in Nigeria,'' she told the judge.

Child Protective Services spokeswoman Estella Olguin said Liggins has documents indicating she was refused entry to Nigeria on June 28, the day the children were sent to the orphanage. Liggins eventually returned to the United States and received a visa from the Nigerian embassy in Atlanta.

Liggins said she has receipts proving she sent about $14,000 to Nigeria for her children's care, and she claimed to have talked to them on the phone at least two or three times a week.

``They never expressed that they wanted to come home,'' she said. ``They even said they were enjoying school. Everything was going fine.''

Child welfare officials investigated four previous complaints of abuse dating back to 1997, but no mistreatment was ever proven, a spokeswoman said earlier this week. Her $512-per-child monthly stipends were halted in March after officials learned the children were not living with the mother.

Liggins faces a custody hearing next Thursday. She also faces a state investigation stemming from payments she received to help with the children's care, and the FBI is also investigating.