HOUSTON -- With their stay in a squalid African orphanage behind them, seven Texas children are readjusting to life in America, shopping for school clothes, eating pizza and watching Harry Potter movies.
The children, ages 8 to 16, returned to Houston last week after a Texas missionary happened upon them in what he described as "an unbelievable cesspool." Some were malnourished, suffering from malaria and typhoid.
Now in two foster homes, the children are happy to get simple things like underwear and hair gel, said Child Protective Services spokeswoman Estella Olguin. On Friday, they celebrated one child's 15th birthday at a skating rink.
"They are regular kids," Olguin said. "They seem pretty resilient."
The children's adoptive mother, Mercury Liggins, is under investigation for allegations of abuse and fraud. Four abuse or neglect complaints had been filed against her prior to the discovery of the children in Nigeria, but no charges were filed.
Attorney Michael Delaney told the Houston Chronicle the children were abandoned by Liggins' brother-in-law when she went to work as a contractor in Iraq.
By all accounts, life was tough for the children even before they landed in a Nigerian orphanage.
Mona Banks, director of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Houston branch where the children spent much of their time, said they frequently had holes in their clothes and shoes.
"A lot of times the mother would send them here with a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and the peanut butter was so hard it didn't want to stick to the bread," Banks said.
She said she and other staffers got donations to help feed the children, keep them clothed and do something special for birthdays.
"I never, ever spoke to the mother," Banks said. "She was a ghost. She would drop them off at the front of the building on the street."
Banks said she suspected deeper problems at home, but the children weren't forthcoming.
"They would always just say things like, 'I'm scared. I don't want to go home,"' Bates said.
Investigators never found anything to substantiate abuse and neglect complaints filed with CPS, Olguin said.
"Each time we went to the home, the kids denied that the mother was abusing them," she said. "They said everything was great. And now, of course, what they are telling us is a different story -- that they were being abused in the home."
Since their return, the children have told of beatings with canes and switches -- and threats to take them to Africa if they ever told law officers about the abuse, Olguin said. Police are reviewing the case.
After Liggins took the children to Nigeria in October, she came back to the United States to train for a job as a food services worker with Houston-based Halliburton's subsidiary KBR.
She went to work in Iraq in April but left three months later. Nigerian officials said the children apparently spent 10 months in Ibadan, shuttled from a neglectful stranger's care to a concrete-block orphanage, begging small change to buy food.
Exactly how long they spent in the orphanage is unclear, but the children were noticed by a passing missionary earlier this month and proved their American citizenship by singing "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Cornerstone Church youth minister Warren Beemer said the children told him their adoptive mother's brother-in-law abandoned them when she stopped sending money.
"This place is an unbelievable cesspool," Beemer wrote to church Pastor John Hagee, in San Antonio, on Aug. 4. "Is there anything we can do to try to get these children back home to America?"
On Aug. 13, with the help of two U.S. congressmen, the children were returned to Houston, where four of the children who are biological siblings were adopted in 1996. The other three share a birth mother and were adopted in 2001.
"If this wouldn't have been examined by us or taken serious, those kids would have been left there," Beemer said Friday from New York. "I didn't want that to be the end of the story. I wanted it to be a good one, not a tragic one."
Liggins told a judge she was desperate to visit the children but could not get a visa to enter Nigeria. She said she sent about $14,000 to Nigeria for her children's care, and talked to them on the phone at least twice a week.
"They never expressed that they wanted to come home," she said. "They even said they were enjoying school. Everything was going fine."
An attorney for the children did not return calls for comment. A custody hearing is scheduled Thursday.
Olguin said monthly payments of $512 per child were cut off in March because Liggins failed to prove she was continuing to care for the children. Liggins told the agency that her children were with her mother while Liggins was in Louisiana receiving treatments for breast cancer.
"Now we know they weren't with her mother," Olguin said. "They were in Africa this whole time."