Archive for Sunday, August 22, 2004

U.S. officials knew about abandoned Texas children

August 22, 2004


— 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 American 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, 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.

Kelly Shannon, a State Department spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., 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 on 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 foster homes in Texas pending a court hearing.

Spokesmen for Sen. John Cornyn and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the Texas Republicans credited with helping get the children back to the United States, earlier praised the State Department for acting decisively once they got involved.

But they later acknowledged not knowing how long the State Department had been talking to Nigerian officials without personally 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, 8 to 16 years old, had been found in a fetid, concrete-block orphanage nearly 7,000 miles from home, in a country infamous for underground trafficking in children for prostitution or slavery.

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