exposing the dark side of adoption
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For abandoned kids' mother, instability has been the norm



August 22, 2004 Sunday SECOND EDITION

For abandoned kids' mother, instability has been the norm

Exclusive: Morning News inquiry unveils long record of troubles




NEWS; Pg. 1A


2809 words

Mercury Denise Liggins was the kind of mother who would adopt nine children from abusive or neglectful homes while raising four kids of her own. But the 47-year-old Houston resident was also a matriarch who shipped seven of her adopted charges to Nigeria while receiving thousands of dollars in state payments for their care. Ms. Liggins, who is facing the loss of the seven abandoned children, ages 8 to 16, and the possibility of criminal charges, told The Dallas Morning News on Friday that she had no comment. "My lawyer told me not to talk to anyone," she said.

The attorney said his client is a loving mother betrayed by an in-law whom she trusted to look after the children.” My client was just as horrified and surprised as any parent would be," attorney Michael Delaney said. Ms. Liggins wants her children back and will fight any attempt by child welfare authorities to strip her of custody, he said. A preliminary custody hearing is scheduled for Thursday in Houston. Meanwhile, the seven skinny, sickly children, who were rescued last week from a squalid juvenile facility in

Nigeria, are in new foster homes in Houston, trying to readjust to normal life.

Amid shopping trips for school clothes, the children are telling tales of abuse by Ms. Liggins, according to child welfare workers and a police report. In interviews around Texas with neighbors and relatives, the portrait of Ms. Liggins that emerges is more akin to Cinderella's stepmother than Mother Teresa.

She indulged herself and her birth children but could be miserly and cruel toward her adopted offspring. Cruises and name-brand clothing were the norm for her and her natural kids, one relative said. The adopted children wore secondhand clothes, slept on a rain-soaked mattress hauled from the trash and were forced to rely on others' charity for food, according to acquaintances.

By conservative estimates, Ms. Liggins earned almost $250,000 in child subsidy payments between1996 and 2004 from the state of Texas. Yet her children often complained to neighbors and others of being hungry. One neighbor, Martha Turner, said she dubbed Ms. Liggins the "microwave queen" because she never seemed to cook for the adopted children. The children also were starved for attention, Ms. Turner said, and Ms. Liggins seemed uninterested. Ms. Turner said that when she asked Ms. Liggins why she needed to send the children to Nigeria so she could seek work in Iraq when she already received so much money from the state in child payments, the response was hard to understand.” She just said it was good money and it was tax-free," Ms. Turner said.

Whether Ms. Liggins is a coldhearted villain or deeply devoted parent struggling to make ends meet will be for the courts to decide. But after extensive interviews and examinations of public records by The Morning News, one fact about Ms. Liggins is clear: She is no stranger to personal and financial turmoil. She was raised in Houston's rough-and-tumble Third Ward. She was a mother at age 19, amassed four failed marriages, battled breast cancer and declared bankruptcy. Until last fall, she was a single mother with seven kids in her direct care.

Her parents named her after the Mercury line of cars. Three younger brothers and a sister also were named after automobiles, said her first husband, Gregory Newman. She has been a soldier, a truck driver and a food-service worker. She has been registered as running a cleaning service and a trucking firm from her home. She is listed as the owner of five homes and a condominium in modest neighborhoods.

Racking up debt

Until last year, she owned a four-bedroom brick home in rural Rusk County, where she lived for time. The property was lost to foreclosure because Ms. Liggins had made only sporadic mortgage payments for several years, records show. She cited the $120,000 East Texas property as her most valuable asset and biggest debt in a bankruptcy filing in January 1998. Her other debts included $34,000 owed to about a dozen banks, finance companies and credit card firms. Tax collectors in Rusk and Harris counties pursued Ms. Liggins for unpaid bills on real estate. The Internal Revenue Service alleged that she failed to pay $5,000 in income taxes during 1997.Ms. Liggins declared that her sole source of income that year, as in the two previous years, was

$42,000 from the Texas Department of Human Services, the state's primary social welfare agency. The income was listed as generated by employment or operation of a business. The state agency said Ms. Liggins has never been an employee. By June 1996, she was the mother of 10 children, including four from Fort Bend County recently adopted with the permission of the state's Child Protective Services agency. The adoptions qualified Ms. Liggins to receive $512 in monthly subsidy payments for each adopted child, the agency said. Despite her ongoing financial problems, in 2001, Ms. Liggins added three adopted children to her family - children of an allegedly abusive mother in Dallas County.

CPS officials said Ms. Liggins, as a single parent, was permitted to adopt the seven children who were rescued last week from a squalid orphanage in Nigeria.

Geoffrey Wool, an agency spokesman, said it would have been the responsibility of Spaulding for Children, the Houston nonprofit agency that arranged the adoptions, to check on Ms. Liggins' financial status. The man who headed Spaulding until last month, Todd Landry, said potential parents would have been asked whether they were financially able to support the child that they were seeking to adopt.” The family, as part of the application, releases information about their employer, about their level of income and about other means. And that information is then verified," Mr. Landry said.

Bankruptcy filings are not part of the financial check, Mr. Landry said. The publicly available record contains no mention of Ms. Liggins' reasons for wanting to adopt seven children within five years. Neither Child Protective Services nor Spaulding would discuss what their records might contain. In addition to Ms. Liggins, her mother, one birth son and the former husband who continues to care for her first two adopted children declined to be interviewed.

'Out of character'

Mr. Newman, who was married to Ms. Liggins from 1976 to 1978, said he was shocked to learn that she is at the center of the abandoned children case. Mr. Newman said he wed Ms. Liggins when she was pregnant with another man's child.” This is out of character for her," Mr. Newman said. "She is a very nice person. She is a very religious person. I just don't know what could have happened.”

Gilbert Lovely, an insurance salesman in Kilgore who said he met Ms. Liggins when he tried to buyer property in Rusk County, said there is no mystery behind her decision to raise such a large group of adopted children.” She just really had a great love for helping those children," Mr. Lovely said. "There are a lot of children out there that need someone to love them. She had a very, very special gift. "Ms. Liggins was devoted to all of her children and treated the adopted kids as if they were her biological children, Mr. Lovely said. He said his fondness for Ms. Liggins stemmed from the commitment that she showed her children. Others said Ms. Liggins remains far more enigmatic as a mother.

One relative living in East Texas who spoke only on condition that she not be named told The News that she wondered whether Ms. Liggins adopted children to earn money.

Ms. Liggins kept mum about how she earned money, the relative said. Instead, she said that she was "in business" and that details were not anyone's concern. Ms. Liggins also talked of taking trips and cruises, the relative said. She went to Las Vegas, Mexico, the Bahamas and Africa, she said. On one trip to Las Vegas, she married a longtime boyfriend, Clayton Williams. Records posted on the Clark County, Nevada, clerk's Web site listed a marriage between Mercury D. Hawkins - Ms. Liggins' maiden name - and Boris Clayton Williams on Valentine's Day 1996.

The marriage occurred four months before the State of Texas approved Ms. Liggins' final adoption of four children from Fort Bend County. The marriage soon dissolved, according to Ms. Liggins' relative. No record of a divorce or annulment could be found in Nevada or Texas. Mr. Williams, whose driver's license listed the address of a home Ms. Liggins owns, could not be reached for comment.

In April 1999, Ms. Liggins bought a home near Houston's Hobby Airport with Larry E. Banks, who was identified in the deed record as her husband. Mr. Banks sold Ms. Liggins the home 17 months later in an intra-family transaction, records show. Mr. Banks, 55, is a former prison inmate with a long criminal record for armed robbery and heroin possession. He is on parole until 2019, state records show.

Ms. Liggins told relatives that she met Victor C. Nwankwo, the man she now calls her husband, on a cruise last year. Her attorney, Mr. Delaney, said his client and Mr. Nwankwo had a common-law relationship for a year before getting married. Mr. Nwankwo, 48, could not be reached for comment. People who answered the phone at Mr. Nwankwo's home twice hung up on reporters.

Mr. Delaney said Mr. Nwankwo was a long-haul truck driver who was born and raised in

Nigeria. Ms. Liggins' seven adopted children had been left in the care of Mr. Nwankwo's brother, Obiora, in Ibadan, Nigeria, the attorney said.

Neighbors near Ms. Liggins' two-story home on Belcrest Street in south Houston said they had not seen the children since last fall. Ms. Turner, who lives next door, said the Liggins children were well behaved and visited her daily. She gave them snacks, and they played with her cat and dog. Many times they sought affection that they did not seem to get from Ms. Liggins, she said.” That littlest boy broke his arm once and came in here and just laid his head on my lap, crying,” said Ms. Turner, a retired bus driver. Other children would come to her home after school just to say hello and give her a hug, she said.” Sometimes they seemed happy," she said. "But sometimes they didn't." Ms. Turner said she was fond of Ms. Liggins but often clashed with her about the children's care. She said Ms. Liggins often seemed uninterested in them. Before one daughter's graduation from middle school last year, Ms. Liggins refused to buy her new clothes, Ms. Turner said. Ms. Liggins always was dressed nicely and drove nice cars, Ms. Turner said.

Joseph Bennett, naval science instructor and leader of the Navy ROTC program at Sterling High School, said he met the oldest girl when she showed up at the school as a freshman in the fall of 2002. She became one of his favorite students. "She was a very energetic, outgoing and bright young lady," Mr. Bennett said. "She was very inquisitive and asked a lot of questions. She wanted to learn about everything. “But the girl sometimes seemed tired, he said. She said she was exhausted from child-care duties.” She was continually looking out for her siblings, caring for them all the time," Mr. Bennett said. She attended school for one month last fall, and then he learned the family had moved. When the news broke last week that the girl had been living with her brothers and sisters in an African orphanage, Mr. Bennett said, he was heartbroken. “I really had a hard time with it because [the girl] really connected with me," he said. "I mean, this was crazy. I didn't sleep that night.”

The East Texas relative said Ms. Liggins often came for visits with the children but would leave them with the family and go to a motel with a boyfriend. When Ms. Liggins left the children, she would provide no money for their care but would leave instructions for them to be dressed in secondhand clothing from Goodwill and fed by local food banks and church kitchens. “One day we were sitting there and the TV dinners were like 99 cents," the relative said. "And we bought everybody TV dinners and we were eating TV dinners, and she got upset because she said that’s a waste of food. What we needed to do was halve the TV dinner with each kid instead of giving them a whole TV dinner.”

The relative said Ms. Liggins' stay at the Rusk County property was brief because she felt there were better opportunities for giveaways in Houston. She bragged about using a Boys and Girls Club and vacation Bible school to obtain free food. “She told us that she had to move because there wasn't enough handouts down here," the East Texas relative said. The way Ms. Liggins treated her other biological children was markedly different from the way she treated the seven adopted ones. “She would always brag on her kids but never brag on the adopted kids," one relative said. "At a certain point in time, I got tired of it."

Children allege abuse

Since returning from Africa, the children have alleged abuse by their adoptive mother, according to child welfare workers and police.

CPS officials have acknowledged that they received five complaints of abuse and neglect involving the Liggins children between July 1996 and September2003.But the allegations were either ruled unfounded or blamed on others. Ms. Liggins has never been cited for abuse or charged with any crime. Several people who knew Ms. Liggins said she was a stern disciplinarian. The East Texas relative said the children acted afraid of Ms. Liggins. "You know how the dogs don't walk around your husband?" the relative said. "You know how a dog acts like that? That's the way [the Liggins children] acted."

Shakarie Williams, 22, who lives across the street from the Liggins home in Houston, said the children complained about abuse from their adoptive mother. Ms. Williams, whose family moved into the neighborhood in 2001, said the oldest Liggins child, a teenage girl, became good friends with her little brother. One day she came over to show them welts on her back, which she said were delivered by Ms. Liggins during an angry tirade. Ms. Williams said Ms. Liggins "would tell the kids to go outside and get a switch off the tree and clean the leaves off so she could whip 'em." Another neighbor who did yardwork for Ms. Liggins, Anthony Morgan, said Ms. Liggins would often ask him to bundle twigs and limbs that he trimmed from trees so she could use them to discipline the children. Ms. Williams said the oldest girl told her and her brother shortly before they left for Africa that they were going on a vacation to Nigeria. "They just never came back," she said.

Going overseas

Last March, relatives said, Ms. Liggins stopped in after going to a Veterans Affairs hospital in Shreveport, La., for a checkup. She had been diagnosed a few years ago with breast cancer and had undergone a double mastectomy, they said. The checkup was necessary, Ms. Liggins said, to prove she was fit to work in Iraq for Halliburton's KBR subsidiary. She said she had already sent the children to Nigeria. "Everyone's jaw fell to the floor," one relative said. "That is a long damn way." Ms. Liggins assured her relatives that the children were happy and were scheduled to come home to Houston for spring break.

Mr. Delaney, the attorney, said his client enrolled the children in the same boarding school that Mr. Nwankwo attended as a child in Nigeria. He said she had been forwarding money to Mr. Nwankwo's brother to pay for the children's care. The children were placed in the orphanage by Nigerian authorities after Mr. Nwankwo's brother stopped paying for their school and disappeared, Mr. Delaney said. They had been in the orphanage for several weeks when a San Antonio youth minister, Warren Beemer, found them. His discovery led two Texas members of Congress to contact the U.S. State Department, which arranged the children's return.

CPS spokeswoman Estella Olguin said Ms. Liggins has not provided many of the documents to prove she supported the children while they were in

Nigeria. She told the agency she had spent $14,000 but has not produced any receipts, Ms. Olguin said. Ms. Liggins also has told authorities that she flew from Iraq to

Nigeria as soon as her husband told her that the children had been taken by Nigerian authorities. She has shown CPS a Nigerian document that reflects she was prevented from entering Nigeria because she had neither a passport nor a visa. Her attorney said she was then advised by the State Department to return to Houston, which she did.

CPS officials find the story puzzling, particularly considering that Ms. Liggins would have had to have a passport with her before boarding a plane in Iraq.” That’s her story, and she's sticking to it," Ms. Olguin said.

Staff writers Lee Hancock, Randy Lee Loftis and Bruce Nichols and special contributor Anne BelliGesalman in Houston contributed to this report.

Email smcgonigle@dallasnews.com and tlangford@dallasnews.com GEORGE OSODI/Special ContributorGEORGE OSODI/Special ContributorWarren Beemer

2004 Aug 22