By Shirley Downing
September 29, 2003
A legal tug-of-war between Chinese and American parents who love the same little girl began with an act of kindness.
As their legal and money woes mounted in 1999, Shaoqiang 'Jack' and Qin Luo 'Casey' He voluntarily gave temporary custody of their newborn daughter, Anna Mae, to Bartlett banker Jerry Baker and his wife, Louise.
Anne Mae, who was born prematurely, needed medical care. The Bakers promised to put the child on their health insurance.
Within 5 months, the Hes were asking the Bakers for their daughter's return. More than four years later, they're still asking.
A bench trial, which could finally settle the issue, is scheduled to begin this morning before Chancellor A. D. Alissandratos. The Bakers want the court to terminate the Hes' parental rights due to abandonment and the child's best interest, setting the stage for adoption.
The case has sparked international attention, prompting letters and visits by the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
"We are very concerned," said Vice Consul Zhou Qian.
The case is among two dozen contested adoption lawsuits filed in Shelby County courts in the past three years, a records search shows.
Such cases often are a "can of worms" that can drag on for years, said Chris Zawisza, director of the child advocacy clinic at the University of Memphis Law School.
Being charged with a crime or being poor or foreign-born is no reason to terminate a natural birth parent's rights, said Webb Brewer, Memphis Area Legal Services litigation director.
"The Tennessee Supreme Court has been pretty uniform in preserving the constitutional rights of birth parents as opposed to foster parents," absent willful abuse or neglect, Brewer said.
But he agreed such cases may linger for years and birth parents don't always win.
At the time the Chinese couple asked the Bakers to help with Anna Mae, Jack He was a graduate student and his wife was a homemaker. They said they were promised Anna Mae would be returned at their request.
The Hes, who have not been judged neglectful or abusive, accuse the Bakers and the judicial system of kidnapping their child.
"It is one of the most horrible things I've ever seen," attorney David Siegel, who donates his time as the couple's legal representative, said of the Bakers' actions.
The Bakers and their attorney Larry Parrish, a former federal prosecutor and longtime anti-pornography crusader, have declined to discuss the case outside the courtroom.
Louise Baker said Saturday afternoon she wished she could "set the record straight" but said the family's attorney had advised them not to speak. She did say she and her husband have four children other than Anna Mae.
But Parrish has said in court the Hes were fully advised of their rights and voluntarily gave the Bakers custody without asking for visitation.
It takes more than genetics to be a parent, Parrish said in a hearing this month.
"If the biological father fails to prove he is fit or that it is in the best interest of the child, it is not even jacks or better to open," he told Alissandratos.
The Hes said they visited their infant daughter weekly and twice sought Anna Mae's return through Juvenile Court. They were refused by Juvenile Court because of their shaky finances and because of a pending assault case against Jack He.
In 1998, while a University of Memphis graduate student, Jack He was accused of sexual battery involving another student. This year, a Criminal Court jury acquitted him of the charges.
In the meantime, Jack He lost his job as a graduate assistant. He and his wife support themselves by working various jobs at Chinese restaurants.
They said their weekly visits with Anna Mae ceased in January 2001 after a dispute at the Bakers' home. The Hes said police told them to stay away.
Fearing arrest, the Hes did not return. About five months later, the Bakers sued in Chancery Court to terminate parental rights and to adopt.
Jack He, 38, and Casey, 35, sent hundreds of letters to the media and government offices complaining of the "kidnap." They set up an Anna Mae Web site.
Chancery Court records are sealed, but Juvenile Court documents support the Chinese couple's version of events.
Siegel said his clients had little knowledge of American law or customs and they were misled.
"There is no record that indicates anyone explained the law to the Hes,'' Siegel said at the recent hearing. "My clients thought they were going to get their child back and they had no reason to suspect the scenario that would take place."
Parrish said the Hes forfeited their right to Anna Mae. Not only did they fail to visit the child, he said, they did not provide financial support although they bought a car, computer and traveled.
Parrish also accused the Hes of delays in order to avoid deportation.
There has been testimony that Casey He entered the country illegally in 1998 by saying she was Jack He's wife. They married last summer. And Jack He's student visa has long since expired.
The Hes, who have had two other children, say they simply want their daughter back, and the sooner the better.
"I will be glad to be gone and glad to have our daughter and family reunited,'' Jack He said, adding that the family will leave immediately for China where he has a job offer.
He said the case has been "just a nightmare. Someone kidnap our daughter and accuse us of willful abandonment and then conspiracy. That is a horrible story."
The U of M's Zawisza said such cases should serve as a warning to anyone who voluntarily yields a child to a second party, absent state orders. Find a friend or relative to help out, but don't give legal custody, she advised.
"It becomes difficult to get the child back, once the child is with someone else and it is supposed to be voluntary but it is not.
"Find another solution."
- Shirley Downing: 529-2387