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Tenn. high court orders foster parents to return Chinese girl, 7

Custody fight has gone on most of her life

Jerry Baker, with his wife, Louise, in 2005, said Anna Mae and his other children are 'going to survive.' Jerry Baker, with his wife, Louise, in 2005, said Anna Mae and his other children are "going to survive." (erica alexander/The Jackson Sun/AP file)

NASHVILLE -- A Chinese couple who lost custody of their baby daughter after putting her in what they said was temporary foster care with an American family won their heartbreaking, seven-year legal battle yesterday to get her back.

In a unanimous decision, the Tennessee Supreme Court said a Memphis judge wrongly took away the Chinese couple's parental rights. The high court said the couple were penalized because they did not understand the American legal system and thought they were giving up their daughter temporarily so she could get health insurance.

Now Anna Mae, who turns 8 later this month, could soon be taken from the only family she has ever known and returned to her biological parents. The court gave no timetable for the girl to be reunited with the couple, who came to this country from China.

The custody fight has been tied up in Tennessee courts since Anna Mae was less than a year old, years before the Memphis judge's 2004 decision drew widespread criticism as culturally and ethnically biased.

The Chinese couple have drawn support in their struggle from the Chinese Embassy in Washington , D.C., and Chinese community groups around the country accused Tennessee courts of cultural bias.

Shaoqiang He said he and his wife, Qin Luo He, are eager to be reunited with Anna Mae, but will move slowly to give her time to adjust to leaving the home of Jerry and Louise Baker in suburban Memphis.

"We want our child to remember their kindness and their love," he said.

The Bakers planned to tell Anna Mae about the court decision last night, said their lawyer, Larry Parrish.

"She has not wanted to have any conversation about it. She will close up her ears and run in another room," Parrish said.

"This will be a life-changing experience no matter how smoothly it goes," Parrish said. "There is no way it can be otherwise. It's just how you make the best of the worst situation."

Jerry Baker said the family was in shock after the ruling. They have four biological children, including a daughter about the same age as Anna Mae.

God "is going to protect these little girls," Baker said. "They're going to survive, and they're going to have productive lives."

The Hes have had two more children since Anna Mae's birth. "When she wakes up each morning, she'll wake up and see her mother and daddy and her brother and sister, and we'll all have the same faces she has," Shaoqiang He said.

Anna Mae was born in 1999 shortly after her father, then a student at the University of Memphis, was accused of a sexual assault. He was acquitted, but the charge cost him a scholarship and the student stipend that was his family's primary source of income.

The Hes said they sent Anna Mae to live with the Bakers temporarily when she was about a month old because of their legal and financial hardships. But the Bakers refused to give Anna Mae up.

In its ruling, the Tennessee Supreme Court said the evidence overwhelmingly shows that the Hes gave up Anna Mae "as a temporary measure to provide health insurance" for her, "with the full intent that custody would be returned."

The justices returned the dispute to the courts in Memphis to work out a plan to reunite the child with her biological parents.

The Hes, who have faced deportation throughout the dispute, have said they would return to China, but could not leave Anna Mae behind.

After placing Anna Mae with the Bakers, the Hes initially visited her regularly. But in 2001 the two families got into an argument, the police were called, and the Hes were ordered to leave the Baker home. Four months later, the Bakers filed a court petition arguing that the Hes had abandoned their daughter.

In 2004, Judge Robert Childers of Memphis took away the Hes' parental rights, ruling that they had abandoned Anna Mae under Tennessee law by not visiting her for four months.

Child-care specialists from several universities argued that Childers was wrong to compare the parenting skills of the Bakers and the Hes or to consider whether Anna Mae would have a better life in suburban America than in China. The Tennessee Supreme Court agreed.

Bruce Boyer, director of the Loyola University Child and Family Law Center in Chicago, said the transition will be difficult for Anna Mae, who "will carry the impact of it for the rest of her life, but the trauma will be far less than we see with kids who are bounced around in the foster care system every day."