NEW DELHI (AP) – The toddler was cheerful, healthy and eating well and her prospective parents eager to hear her voice a year ago, the manager of the Indian orphanage where Sherin Mathews was adopted remembers. So she wants answers about what happened before the girl’s body was found in a Texas culvert and her father was jailed, allegedly telling police the 3-year-old needed a special diet and choked to death on milk.
The claim that Sherin was malnourished and needed to eat at odd hours puzzles Babita Kumari, who managed the orphanage in eastern India where the girl had lived since infancy. “Look at the photos of the child. Does she look malnourished?” Kumari said during a phone interview with The Associated Press.
“I have so many questions about what happened to her,” Kumari said.
The girl then named Saraswati, after the Hindu goddess of wisdom, was a happy, cheerful child who made everyone smile at the Mother Teresa Orphanage and Children’s Home in the city of Nalanda in eastern India’s Bihar state.
“We loved her laughter,” Kumari said. “She was a smart child.”
Sherin’s body was found by cadaver dogs in a culvert under a road in suburban Dallas on Sunday after her father reported her missing on Oct. 7. Wesley Mathews is being held on $1 million bond on a charge of felony injury to a child. A cause of death hasn’t been determined, and an autopsy hasn’t been released.
Mathews told police his daughter had developmental disabilities and was malnourished. The couple described a special diet regimen in order to help her gain weight.
According to an arrest affidavit filed by Richardson police, Wesley Mathews said he had been trying to get the girl to drink her milk in the garage.
“Eventually the 3-year-old girl began to drink the milk. Wesley Mathews then physically assisted the 3-year-old girl in drinking the milk,” according to the affidavit.
Mathews told police that Sherin began to choke and cough and eventually he felt no pulse and believed the child had died. Investigators wrote that he “then admitted to removing the body from the home.”
The affidavit does not say whether Mathews administered any medical aid to his daughter.
The child was already eating solid food and drinking milk from a cup when she left the orphanage, Kumari remembers. She said Sherin squinted in one eye, but otherwise had nothing wrong with her when Mathews and his wife Sini Mathews adopted her in June 2016.
“Why did they have to make her eat or drink anything at that hour? Why was he forcing her?” Kumari asked.
“If someone is forces a drink into the mouth of someone who is crying and sobbing then even an adult can choke,” Kumari said.
Sherin was sent to the orphanage in Nalanda by child welfare authorities when she was only a few months old. It has since shut down, which Kumari said was due to missing paperwork. She said the orphanage would challenge the shutdown.
Adoption is relatively rare in India, even though hundreds of thousands of children are at risk or living in government-run or -mandated centers. Religion and caste remain important social indicators, so it’s not often considered an option by Indian families. The government has tried to promote the idea and it mandates prospective parents register as a way to prevent trafficking and reduce cumbersome paperwork.
Between April 2016 to March this year, 3,210 children were adopted within India and just 578 Indian children were adopted outside the country.
Kumari said that the Mathews’ raised no red flags at the orphanage when they adopted their daughter. After their first visit to see the girl, they called regularly from the United States.
“They wanted to hear her voice over the phone. They seemed to love her. The follow up reports from America were also good.”
India requires quarterly post placement reports in the first year a child is adopted and then two reports a year for the second year.
“I will always want to know what happened to this child. What was the real reason she passed away,” Kumari said.
“If we had known this would happen to her, we would never have sent her.”