exposing the dark side of adoption
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BACK HOME IN HOUSTON / Seven kids drawn together by abuse seek and safety after adoption and their Nigerian orphanage ordeal / How did it come to this?


TUE 08/31/2004 Houston Chronicle, Section Star, Page 1, 2 STAR Edition

She knew exactly what she wanted for her 17th birthday, but it couldn't be wrapped in a box, and there was no price tag.

She wanted a slumber party.

She wanted her six brothers and sisters to attend. She wanted to fall asleep with them last Saturday night and wake up with them Sunday morning.

The good news: The birthday girl got what she wanted.

The bad news: So many horrible things have happened to the pretty teenager over the years that she rarely thinks about what she wants. And when she does, the requests are heartbreaking.

She wants a home for herself and her six siblings. Adults who listen to them and understand what they've been through. Futures filled with hope, in contrast to pasts marred by violence and pain.

These are the Liggins kids, the ones discovered sick and rail-thin in a Nigerian orphanage in early August.

The children were flown home and placed in two suburban Houston foster homes after considerable work by the San Antonio missionary who found them, the offices of two congressmen and the U.S. State Department.

Then the charges and countercharges began to fly.

Mercury Denise Liggins, the adoptive mother of the children ages 8 to 17, says through attorney Michael Delaney that she loves her kids and wants permanent custody. State and local child-protection officials, however, question Liggins' parenting abilities.

They think she abused the children and profited from the monthly stipend, more than $500 per child, that she was paid by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Parental rights should be terminated, they say.

The dozens of adults involved in this case agree on a few points. The kids deserve better. They've been poorly served and, in some cases, betrayed by many of the people and institutions in their lives. Now is the time to improve on that record. Now is the time to start fulfilling the 17-year-old's wish list - if the adults in charge can only figure out how.

The tug of war for the children eased late last week when Liggins agreed to leave the children in the temporary care of CPS.

After her decision was announced in the 315th state district court, a child-support hearing was scheduled for Thursday, and the plan to play excerpts of six hours of CPS videotapes in court was canceled. The tapes feature one child after another detailing abuse at the hands of their adoptive mother.

Terry Elizondo, the children's attorney ad litem, had watched only a third of the tapes when she wondered aloud whether the kids were safer in Africa than at their mother's home in Houston.

Found sick and hungry

Elizondo says the children spent the bulk of their time in Africa in a reputable boarding school while Liggins worked in Iraq. Even in the relatively short time they spent in the orphanage, they weren't physically abused.

From what the children have told Elizondo, that was sweet relief.

"In Africa, they were probably beaten less, and they received more attention, than here," she said.

The Africa chapter began in October when Liggins flew the kids to Nigeria, enrolled them in school, then left for Iraq. The arrangement worked until the tuition checks dried up in July.

Liggins says she sent the money, but her fiance's brother didn't forward it to the proper authorities. Child-welfare officials still are trying to figure out exactly what happened when, but they do know that by July 22, the children had stopped attending school.

Nigerian authorities found the kids a few days later in the vacant house of their almost-uncle.

The kids were hungry and broke, and three of them had malaria. On July 28, officials escorted the kids to the orphanage.

On Aug. 4, youth pastor Warren Beemer of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio dropped by the orphanage to pass out food and clothing. When he discovered the kids, he was skeptical, then flabbergasted. They knew all about Houston Rocket Yao Ming and many of the Dallas Cowboys. They knew the slang for a $100 bill.

With help from U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land; U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas; and State Department officials, the children got their most fervent wish, which was to return to Houston.

They found themselves, however, in the midst of an international hullabaloo. Oprah wanted to interview them. The staff at People magazine wanted to pay their barber, beauty-shop and makeup bills, then take their pictures.

Their story feeds the notion that the massive agency designed to protect abused and neglected children is underfunded, understaffed and trouble-prone.

Missing the basics

The children make up a loving family unit that was engineered by CPS. The four older kids were born to Houstonians Gregory Bonner and Janice Marie Williams, who acknowledges that she abused crack cocaine before the children were taken from her. The common-law couple lost their parental rights in 1994, and Liggins, who already had two biological children and two adopted children, took on the foursome in 1996.

The three younger kids were taken from their biological mother, LaQuinta Teague, in 1998 after she went to prison for assaulting a peace officer. Liggins adopted the Dallas threesome in 2001.

At least one of those kids describes the past three years as sheer hell.

Dr. John Sargent, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, says children can be resilient. But, he says, trauma early in life can set up kids for more and increasingly complicated problems.

Sargent ticks off potential problems: low educational and occupational achievement, relationship problems, difficulty raising their own children, trouble coping with frustration and disappointment, and lowered expectations for the future.

Traumatized children also can struggle with depression, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and an inability to trust, he said.

"For children who experience significant trauma, it is often difficult for them to trust authority figures," he said. "These kids don't immediately respond to a teacher, a boss or an adult in charge in a respectful and controlled manner."

One bright spot, the doctor says, is that the kids have been able to stick together.

Also, they have many people who love them.

Mona Bates, with the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Houston, says she tried to be a surrogate parent to the Liggins kids. She says she and her staff used to wait almost an hour past closing time for Liggins to pick up the children.

When the situation at home seemed to seriously deteriorate, Bates would call CPS to report abuse and neglect.

The unit director for the club on Selinksy says the eldest child even called CPS to complain.

The children's first names have been withheld to protect their privacy.

"After every call, caseworkers did come out," Bates said. "But it seemed someone had tipped off the adoptive mom. By the time the caseworkers showed up, she'd bought groceries and got the kids cleaned up and pulled everything together. I used to tell the caseworkers, `The kids don't usually look like this. Usually they're wearing clothes that look horrible, and they're dirty and hungry.'

"But I just couldn't get anywhere."

Instead, the staff dug into their own pockets and held clothing drives to help the kids. Bates says the oldest girl lacked supplies as basic as sanitary napkins. She and staff members saw a few of the kids go Dumpster-diving for food. Each time, the adults stepped in to help and feed them.

Bates remembers Mercury Liggins did make the kids peanut butter sandwiches to take for lunch at the summer program. But, she says, the peanut butter was so old and hard it wouldn't stick to the bread.

Bates remembers the other kids usually had drinks, fruit and chips. Not the Liggins bunch.

What happens next?

The question Bates asks is how to help the kids now.

Sargent, the psychiatrist, says the children need to be safe, feel safe and know that adults will meet their basic needs. They also need psychological assessments and, most likely, therapy.

They probably have trust issues, for example.

In the long run, it might be important to keep all seven together, Sargent said. "It is the least disruptive and includes the least amount of loss," he said.

Permanency and consistency will be important as their future living situation is determined, he said. Adult caretakers will have to understand and be able to handle their special needs.

Ultimately, their resiliency may rest on finding a true guardian, Sargent said.

"If you know you have an adult who will stand up for you, who will go to the wall for you, who loves you unconditionally, who believes in you and believes in your future, you are more likely to believe in your future, which is what resilience is."

When the children returned from Africa, they were placed in foster homes, one for the boys and one for the girls.

In the few weeks they've been back, they've been checked out physically, and the psychological evaluations are continuing, Olguin said. Everybody got haircuts. Everybody is going to church. Everybody is going to school. Everybody will go to counseling as soon as their individual needs are determined. They've seen at least one of the Harry Potter movies. They're about caught up on pizza and cake.

They still have night terrors, Olguin said. They know that publicity about their case will eventually die down, and soon they'll have to cope with the day-to-day stuff. Math tests. Fights with siblings. Skinned knees.

Normalcy is a goal, Olguin says, but the kids aren't there yet. She gives just one example. Charitable Houstonians have opened their wallets to the children, and, in turn, CPS officials have asked them for wish lists.

One of the boys asked for socks. One of the girls asked for a bra. A third asked for a long-sleeved shirt. A fourth asked for shoes.


Who are these kids?

Those close to them offer thumbnail sketches:

Girl, age 17: The strong one, the protector, the little mother. Mature and upbeat.

Girl, age 15: The exuberant one in the family. At the Boys & Girls Club, she often led the choir.

Girl, age 13: Struggled with reading problems before she left for Africa. It wasn't that she couldn't learn, but she slipped through the cracks at school. To avoid being embarrassed in front of her peers, she hid her learning problems.

Girl, age 12: Low-key and quiet. She had her circle of friends and didn't venture beyond them.

Boy, age 12: He was just starting to like girls before he left the country. His teeth were crooked, but that didn't stop him from trying to dazzle the ladies.

Boy, age 11: The most frightened of Mercury Liggins, his adopted mom, and the most troubled by the rocky past. During his early days at the Boys & Girls Club, he acted out.

Boy, age 8: He loved the game room at the center and running and playing and trailing behind his siblings. The staff dubbed him the littlest duckling.

2004 Aug 31