MEMPHIS íZíZíZ Anna Mae He will turn 3 years old on Monday, but her parents will not be celebrating.
Instead, they will be giving more depositions in their battle to get her back.
The Hes are Chinese immigrants who came to America seeking a better life. But they fell on hard times, legally and financially, and when Anna Mae was born they were desperate.
The Bakers are Anna Mae's foster parents, a couple who stepped in and volunteered to care for the baby three years ago when the Hes needed help. She has been with them ever since; now they want to adopt her.
The case is a complicated one. A Memphis court must decide Anna Mae's future based on what's best for the child. And that, of course, is the question.
Things fall apart
Anna Mae was born on Jan. 28, 1999, into poverty and turmoil. Her father, "Jack" Shaoqiang He, 37 íZíZíZ known around this friendly Southern town as "Mister He" íZíZíZ was a visiting college professor from China who came to the USA on a student visa and was pursuing a doctorate in economics at the University of Memphis.
Here he married "Casey" Qin Luo, 34, a Chinese woman he met through a friend back home. She spoke no English, but she shared his strong faith and love for America, Mister He says. They planned to build a good life together.
But in 1998, when Casey was pregnant with Anna Mae, her husband was charged with assaulting a fellow student. He and the student, a Chinese woman named Xiaojun Qi (pronounced Key), went to a computer lab alone; a week later Qi went to school officials, displayed bruises and said Mister He caused them during a sexual assault.
Mister He vehemently denies the allegation. He says he left the lab feeling uncomfortable after the woman asked him for a $500 loan. But the university dismissed him, his income from the university vanished and his student visa hung on his collegiate appeal.
On Thanksgiving in 1998, the Hes left their one-bedroom apartment and went to the grocery store. They were attacked by several men, and Casey was knocked down. That night she began suffering vaginal bleeding. Her condition worsened until doctors finally, in January, delivered Anna Mae by C-section, one month premature.
With a $12,000 hospital bill, a criminal assault charge and a continuing legal fight to try to get reinstated at the university, the Hes sought help in caring for their baby. Friends at their church suggested a local adoption agency.
Mid-South Christian Services agreed to place the baby in a foster home for three months. They placed her with Jerry and Louise Baker.
Short-term solution lengthens
Although Anna Mae could not know it, she had gone from one extreme to another. Born to unemployed immigrants, she now lives in relative luxury.
The Bakers live in a five-bedroom, 4,800-square-foot home in the Davies Plantation area east of town. Their $414,000 house sits on more than an acre of rolling Tennessee hills. There are colorful play sets in the well-groomed backyard. Inside there is a media room with surround sound and a 53-inch TV, a Jacuzzi and a central vacuum system.
The Bakers began caring for Anna Mae on Feb. 23, 1999, and the Hes say they visited their daughter at least once a week. When the three months ended, they still were not able to care for Anna Mae. Mid-South Christian Services could no longer handle their case because the agency's supervision is limited to 90 days in temporary custody cases. So the two couples negotiated the next step on their own.
The Bakers refuse to discuss the matter on advice from their lawyer, Larry Parrish. They say that publicity will only make the child's situation more difficult and painful. But according to the Hes, the Bakers said they would continue to care for Anna Mae but that they needed legal custody to enroll her on their health insurance. Mister He says his wife signed over custody on June 3, only after assurances that they could take Anna Mae back at any time.
Over the next year, the Hes say they continued to visit Anna Mae and told the Bakers they wanted her back. They say Jerry Baker asked that the arrangements stay in place until his then-pregnant wife gave birth to her own child.
But the Bakers say in court documents that the Hes abandoned Anna Mae by not visiting enough and failing to pay child support. For the past year, the Bakers have refused the Hes' official requests to give Anna Mae back. Last month, the Bakers insisted, through Parrish, that Mister He take a DNA test to prove that he was Anna Mae's father. The test proved that he is.
Now the court must decide what is best for Anna Mae, considering the bond of the family unit, the ability of each couple to care for her, the fact that life with the Bakers is all she knows.
David Levy, a lawyer and president of the Children's Rights Council, a non-profit children's advocacy group, says the legal advantage goes to the adults who live with the child. "Time works against the blood parents," he says. "Possession is nine-tenths of the law."
Still, courts often try to award custody to birth parents if they are capable of caring for the child, he says. In the case of Anna Mae, over the three years since she was born, her parents have improved their standing. They live in a larger one-bedroom apartment. They own a new car. And they both found jobs.
But their troubles lately have multiplied. Mister He is still not welcome at the university. Instead, he manages a Chinese restaurant. But that could change. His student visa is no longer in effect because he is not a student, so the Hes know they are in danger of being deported. They fear if that happens they will never see Anna Mae again.
The owners of the restaurants where the Hes work have received subpoenas demanding that they appear Monday at Parrish's office with documents pertaining to the couple, including any communication about Mister He with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "They know this is our weakest point," Mister He says. "We show them we can make money to support Anna Mae, and they take away our jobs."
Casey has already lost her job as a waitress at the Great China Restaurant. Mister He doesn't know what will happen with his job at the Red Sun Buffet.
And there is still the matter of the criminal charge.
Mister He says he is learning that America's system of justice is not everything he thought it was. He insists he is innocent. He does not understand that it is not so simple.
In the three years since the assault charge was made, lawyers have negotiated and offered various plea agreements. The most recent is known as a "diversion": If he would admit guilt and stay out of trouble for a year, the case would be removed from his record.
But admitting guilt is not an option for Mister He. "The truth is not negotiable," he says. "The truth is all I have."
In his firm stance, he has alienated several lawyers who have tried to help him. Sometimes, in frustration, the Hes have become downright nasty. Casey once screamed at a lawyer who was assisting her and called the woman "the devil." More than once the Hes' visits to law offices have ended with threats to call the police and have them removed.
Last month, the judge dismissed the indictment against Mister He on a technicality. But prosecutors say they plan to file the charge again.
A complicated case
On Monday, Anna Mae's birthday, one year will have passed since the Hes have seen their child. When they visited on her second birthday, a conflict between the couples ended with the Bakers calling the police to have the Hes removed. The Bakers told the Hes they could not come to see Anna Mae again.
Levy says the He case is one of a growing number of more complicated custody cases in American courts today. Whether it's from immigration issues, gay or lesbian parents or artificial fertilization issues, custody cases are getting tougher for courts to decide.
"The system is not equipped to deal with this," Levy says. "The courts are never a good place to resolve custody."
Levy says in the case of Anna Mae, the adults should try to work together as a team. "I would recommend shared parenting. There are four adults who love this child. They are all just afraid of getting pushed out."
But he doubts the two sides can put aside their differences now to work together for the child. His prognosis is grim: "A huge mess in which the child is emotionally damaged for life."