Out of Africa

updated 09/06/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/06/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In eight years as a missionary with the Cornerstone Church of San Antonio, Rev. Warren Beemer has fed and clothed children from all over the Third World. Yet even he was surprised by the conditions he found at an orphanage in Ibadan, Nigeria, on Aug. 4. The children were filthy and ragged; excremental stench filled even the mess hall. Still, thrilled to see visitors bearing toys and candy, the kids chattered excitedly in the British accents typical of this former U.K. colony—except for one little boy who started a game of cards with a pastor in Beemer's group. Asked where he was from, the boy replied in a perfect Texan twang, "Houston."

Then he led Beemer and the other pastor into a bare room and introduced his six siblings, aged 8 to 16. Suspicious at first that the kids were perhaps Africans who had picked up some American slang, Beemer quizzed them. What was their favorite team? "Houston Rockets," one piped up. His favorite player? "Yao Ming." Before long some of the others were rattling off their social security numbers, the names of their teachers and schools and saying they missed Domino's pizza. Then they named the church they'd attended back in Houston. "That," says Beemer, "convinced me." Scolded by an orphanage administrator for snapping their photos against regulations, he shot back, "These are American kids. And they're going home."

Beemer, 34, made good on his vow: With help from House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and the State Department, the children managed to get home without passports or paperwork. In the days that followed, the story of how seven Texas kids—all U.S. citizens—wound up living in squalor in a Nigerian orphanage began to take shape. It began with their adoptive mother, Mercury Denise Liggins, 47. A divorced mother of four, Liggins adopted three girls and a boy from a Houston family in 1996 and, in 2001, two boys and a girl from a family in Dallas. "They all came from situations where the parents' rights were terminated," says Estella Olguin of Harris County, Texas, Children's Protective Services. Because older siblings who wish to stay together are considered difficult to adopt, Liggins was paid more than $500 a month per child by the state.

Last October Liggins, who was engaged to Nigerian-born truck driver Victor Nwankwo, 48, took the children to Nigeria and left them in the care of Nwankwo's brother Obiora. She later went to Iraq to work as a cafeteria employee for the Halliburton corporation. Obiora enrolled the children in a Montessori boarding school, but at some point he disappeared, the money stopped coming, and the kids left school. For weeks the children lived by their wits and the kindness of neighbors.

In July the neighbors alerted Nigerian child-protection authorities, who found the children malnourished—some were sick with typhoid and malaria—and moved them to the orphanage. Now they're in the custody of the CPS, and Liggins is trying to get them back—no charges of any kind have been filed against her yet. In a hearing Aug. 16 she told Judge Sherry Van Pelt that she had sent roughly $14,000 to Obiora over eight months. "I didn't just abandon my children," she said, adding that she spoke with them frequently by phone. "They never expressed that they were in any duress or wanted to come home. Everything was going fine."

Terry Elizondo, the state appointed attorney for the children, says the girls especially enjoyed their time at school—"boys thought they were cute and more with-it than African girls"—until the money ran out. Elizondo says the children told her Obiora had tried to get their mother to send money but none came. They showed her at least two e-mails they had cosigned, pleading for help. "The e-mails were very specific as to what was needed," she says. "So much for food, so much for tuition."

This isn't Liggins's first encounter with CPS. Since 1996 the department has received four reports that the seven adopted children were bruised and malnourished under her care. "But every time we went there," Olguin says, "they denied they were beaten and the refrigerator had plenty of food." Now, she adds, "it sounds to us that she didn't have the kids' best interests at heart for quite some time." Liggins's attorney Michael Delaney paints a radically different picture: "She loves them, she wants to do her best for them, and she's going to fight for them."

Liggins checked into a Houston hospital last weekend because of emotional distress, Delaney says. But she was due back in court on Aug. 26 to argue her fitness as a mother. By all accounts, the children seem to be doing better. "They watched a Harry Potter movie, and they're shopping for clothes," says Olguin. On Aug. 22, she adds, they gathered to mark the birthdays they couldn't celebrate while they were gone. "They're enjoying being kids again."

Richard Jerome. Cary Cardwell in San Antonio and Gabrielle Cosgriff and Lisa Gray in Houston

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