MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- A Chinese couple facing possible deportation while trying to regain custody of their 4-year-old daughter failed Thursday to block termination of their parental rights.
Shaoqiang He and Qin Luo must now defend those rights at trial Sept. 29.
They are scheduled for a federal court hearing in December, and if deported before regaining custody of their daughter Anna Mae, could lose her forever.
An American couple, Jerry and Louise Baker, want to adopt Anna Mae over her parent's objections. Anna Mae's parents put her in foster care shortly after her birth in 1999 because they were out of work could not afford to support her.
The dispute has drawn the interest of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. Two embassy representatives attended a hearing at which the Hes opposed a petition to take away their parental rights to Anna Mae.
"We are not specialists on law, but still we hope to see the rights and interests of our citizens protected by the court," said Wang Yigong, first secretary of the embassy.
As a step toward adoption, the Bakers seek to terminate the Hes' parental rights under state law, arguing they have abandoned Anna Mae.
The Hes contend the Bakers have blocked their attempts to visit their daughter for more than two years. During an argument between the two couples in December 2001, the Hes were escorted from the Bakers' residence by police.
At a hearing before State Chancery Court Judge D.J. Alissandratos, the Hes sought a summary judgment, or immediate decision, dismissing the Bakers' parental rights petition.
Alissandratos rejected the Hes' request and their petition for a jury trial.
If the Hes lose their parental rights, the Bakers can move toward adoption. If the Bakers lose, more hearings on custody must be held.
The Hes are trying to stay in the United States until the custody dispute is settled, even though they agree they must ultimately go back to China.
Shaoqiang He came to the United States on a student visa and was working toward a Ph.D. in economics at the University of Memphis when a female student accused him of fondling her.
Charged with sexual assault, he lost his scholarship and the student stipend that was his main source of income. He refused legal advice to plea bargain on the assault charge and demanded a jury trial. He finally went to trial in February and was acquitted.
But He and his wife still cannot get Anna Mae back. He has made a modest living, primarily working in Chinese restaurants, since Anna Mae's birth. The couple have had two more children.
The Bakers say they had an informal agreement with Anna Mae's parents to keep her permanently, while the Hes contend the foster care arrangement was temporary.
Larry Parrish, the Bakers' lawyer, said the Hes wanted to give their daughter away and are in the custody fight to help them remain in the United States.
"What they were doing was having a free baby sitter as long as they wanted to," Parrish said.
The Hes have no legal grounds for being in the United States since Shaoqiang He came to America on a student visa that expired years ago.
Parrish said the Bakers believe Anna Mae will receive better care with them than with her parents. He refused to say why and the Bakers declined comment.
David Siegel, lawyer for the Hes, said his clients knew little about American law when they went to juvenile court and gave up what they thought was temporary custody of Anna Mae.
They did not realize a court's permission would be needed to get her back and are willing to leave the country if she is returned to them, Siegel said.
"They have done everything in their power to get this child back," he said.