When a missionary found seven malnourished, diseased and abandoned Texas children in a Nigerian orphanage, U.S. State Department officials had known about the children's plight but had not gone to the orphanage to check on them.
No U.S. official visited the government-run orphanage, which reportedly houses orphaned children and juveniles convicted of violent crimes such as rape, for more than a week after a tipster told the U.S. consulate in Nigeria about the children, according to the State Department.
The city where the orphanage is located, Ibadan, is about 60 miles northeast of Lagos, Nigeria's largest city and site of the consulate. The trip by taxi takes just over an hour and costs 75 cents, according to Lonely Planet's West Africa travel guide.
Kelly Shannon, a State Department spokeswoman, said she did not know why it took so long for a consular official to check firsthand the Nigerian government's assurances that the children were safe and well cared for.
The Nigerian government told U.S. officials the children had received medical care, Shannon said. "We had no indication that they were in any physical danger," she added.
Most important, she said, is that the State Department returned the children to Texas Aug. 13 and handed them over to state child protection officials. The children -- four siblings from Fort Bend County and three from Dallas -- are in Texas foster homes pending a court hearing.
Spokesmen for Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), credited with helping get the children back to the United States, earlier praised the State Department for acting decisively once it got involved.
But they later acknowledged not knowing how long the State Department had been talking to Nigerian officials without checking the children's well-being or immediately arranging their transfer to a safer, cleaner location, such as the consulate in Lagos or the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Abuja.
"It is a concern," said Don Stewart, spokesman for Cornyn. "These kids certainly dodged the bullet."
Stuart Roy, DeLay's spokesman, said the State Department acted quickly after DeLay and Cornyn intervened Aug. 5. By contrast, the State Department was worried about protocol and "was very concerned with what do they do with them once they get them out of the orphanage," he said.
DeLay was more inclined to act first to protect the children and work out finer points of procedure later, Roy said.
The State Department timeline, outlined at its daily briefing Wednesday and confirmed through interviews with department spokesmen, sheds new light on how the children left Nigeria after a chance encounter with a San Antonio missionary and at the behest of powerful Texas politicians.
But it also leaves unanswered questions about what U.S. officials did after being told that seven American children, ages 8 to 16, had been found in a fetid, concrete-block orphanage nearly 7,000 miles from home, in a country infamous for underground trafficking of children for prostitution or slavery.
Last week, news reports gave a dramatic account: Warren Beemer, a youth minister from San Antonio, was on a mission to help poor children in Ibadan, a city of 8 million in southern Nigeria, when a local man guided him to the Ibadan Women's Center for Abandoned Children and Remanded Youth.
Once there, he heard a child speaking English with an American accent. The girl, one of the seven American children, led him to the others. They said their adoptive mother, Mercury D. Liggins, had brought them to Nigeria 10 months earlier and left them with a relative, who eventually abandoned them.
After the children convinced Beemer they were Americans -- they were fans of the Houston Rockets and Dallas Cowboys and sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" with hands over their hearts -- Beemer phoned his pastor in San Antonio, John Hagee.
Hagee alerted Cornyn and DeLay and asked for their help. They, in turn, notified the State Department, which arranged to get the children back to Texas.
What Beemer could not know when he found the children was that the U.S. consulate in Lagos knew about them but had not sent anyone to see them.
The children had been in an Ibadan boarding school from Oct. 16, 2003, until July 22, according to a report by the Associated Press in Ibadan. The children apparently spent six days on their own until July 28, when Nigerian officials learned of their plight and brought them to the orphanage.
Nigerian officials did not immediately notify the U.S. government, AP said, quoting unidentified locals as speculating that the government wanted to wait until the children were healthier.
Officials at the Nigerian Embassy in Washington did not respond to several phone and e-mail queries from the Dallas Morning News.
On July 30, a person the State Department would identify only as "a local contact" in Nigeria tipped off the consulate in Lagos. On Aug. 4, Beemer found the children at the orphanage and called Hagee, who in turn contacted the Texas congressmen.
The elected officials intervened on Aug. 5, and on Aug. 7 -- the ninth day that the State Department had known about the children -- a consular official from Lagos saw the children at the orphanage for the first time. On Aug. 9, State Department officials in Washington got in touch with Liggins, the adoptive mother. They have not disclosed where she was then or what was said.
By Aug. 12, the State Department had arranged new passports, travel documents and plane tickets for the children, who had been left with no official identity papers. They arrived in Houston on Aug. 13.
One expert in human trafficking said each extra day the children spent out of U.S. government protection might have led to tragedy.
"A lot of abandoned children are forced into prostitution or begging or domestic work," said Wenchi Yu Perkins, anti-human-trafficking program officer for Vital Voices Global Partnership, a Washington-based group that works in developing countries.
The State Department has done a good job of documenting the dangers of child trafficking, she said.
"Obviously, the awareness has not gotten through everywhere," she said.
The children, five shown with two orphanage workers, had been in Ibadan. Their singing of the national anthem convinced Beemer of their citizenship.
Warren Beemer of San Antonio found the children in an orphanage while on a church mission trip. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) is credited with helping to secure the children's return after their adoptive mother left them.Spokesmen for Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and DeLay praised the State Department for its actions before knowing the timeline of events.