Family awaits hearing, return of daughter, 8
By MILLETE BIRHANEMASKEL, [email protected]
March 3, 2007
Co-workers at the Mandarin House restaurant on Merchants Drive remember Jack He as a cheerful, upbeat man.
Few, however, knew the misery that drove their manager and his family from Memphis to Knoxville.
Few knew that He and his wife, Casey, were fighting to regain custody of their 8-year-old daughter, Anna Mae He, who resides in Memphis with a white family that has raised her since she was about a month old.
The Tennessee Supreme Court recently brought the Hes' nightmare to an end in some ways. The court ruled in favor of restoring their parental rights, overturning lower courts, and it ordered that Anna Mae be returned to them.
The Hes' lawyer, David Siegel, anticipates that contact will begin after a March 7 hearing in Juvenile Court in Memphis. The process will attempt to minimize the trauma to Anna Mae.
In other ways, however, the hardest questions remain unanswered: Is Anna Mae truly afraid of Asian women, as has been reported? Will she reject her biological parents and anything Chinese, as her foster parents, Jerry and Louise Baker, have said in media interviews? How will Anna Mae reconcile a new life without the material luxuries to which she has grown accustomed?
Jack remains optimistic.
"They said whenever my child saw Asian women she will be frightened as if we are monsters. That is her identity," he said. "I feel very sad the Bakers have poisoned her mind (but) when she returns, she will know that she had a loving, caring mommy and daddy, brother and sister. Those worries will be gone for good."
Jack He, whose Chinese name is Shaoqiang He, remembers the day he put all of his faith in Louise and Jerry Baker.
The Chinese immigrant came to the United States in 1995 on a student visa, and he had few friends and no family nearby.
His hardships began a short time after his wife, whose Chinese name is Qin Luo, joined him in the United States.
An adult student who is also Chinese accused him of sexual assault.
He said the woman was trying to extort from him and, after rejecting plea deals, he was acquitted of all charges in a trial. But his scholarship money was jeopardized, and legal fees left him in debt.
Then Casey delivered Anna Mae one month premature.
The Hes had just converted to Christianity, so a Christian adoption agency through their home church, Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, seemed like a godsend.
The Hes met the Baker family and signed paperwork to give Anna Mae to the family for foster care - a temporary arrangement so that Anna Mae would obtain needed medical care.
In June 1999, Jack He said he and his wife locked hands with the Bakers, who He said were his new family in Christ.
"Mr. Baker prayed for us. He said it was God's will for us to get to know them," He said. "It was very moving. We just became Christians at that time."
Reflecting on that first meeting more than seven years ago, He now has a different perspective on the beginning of what he calls the darkest time in his life.
In November 1999, several months later, the Hes said they tried to regain custody of Anna Mae but were denied.
"They said, 'You abandoned your child.' They said, 'You never paid child support.' They said they want to help us out of Christian love (then) they turned everything around," Jack He said.
"If the Bakers returned the child, there would be no harm. That would be a moving and touching story."
Instead, the story played out in bitter custody disputes in court.
More than seven years later, on Jan. 23, the Tennessee Supreme Court ultimately answered He's prayers and in some ways restored his faith.
"In the past, I was narrow minded. 'Oh, church people take out the Bible and hold your hand, they are good people.' That is a stereotype," He said. "It makes me think that every group, every category, there are good people and bad people."
He said his faith is still strong. He credits two Memphis-area churches for helping his family financially as they prepare for Anna Mae's return.
Reached at their Memphis home, Louise Baker said the family's attorney, Larry Parrish, advised them not to talk to the press. The Bakers received criticism recently after an interview on "Good Morning America" where Anna was said to reject her Chinese heritage and claim to be Mexican.
'We are family'
Jack and Casey He are giddily preparing for Anna Mae's return.
They bought her a new bed and sheets, Jack He said proudly. They also have new furniture, which they hand-painted blue with flowery designs. He said they read in the newspapers that Anna Mae's favorite color is blue.
Jack also said he installed graphics software to accommodate Anna Mae's love of drawing, and he bought her several pairs of tennis shoes.
He said the family, which now also includes a 6-year-old brother and 4-year-old sister, will be waiting with the background music "We Are Family," by Sister Sledge.
"I have been waiting for this day seven years," Casey said.
The family hasn't seen Anna Mae much since she was 2 years old. They said the police were called when they tried to visit her.
They will adjust to her needs, He said.
The Hes will wait awhile longer.
The process to return Anna Mae could take months. A lawyer and psychologist have been appointed to ensure minimal trauma to her.
"We don't know how long it's going to take," said Siegel, who has represented the Hes pro bono.
Anna Mae's attorney and psychologist will interview both families and present findings on March 7 before Juvenile Court.
Siegel said he expects contact to begin soon after.
"It has been a long time coming, but it's never too late for justice," Siegel said.
He said the family likely will return to Knoxville at some point. He has friends here and an employer willing to rehire him. Memphis reminds him of the "nightmare."
Jack said he hopes Anna Mae's case doesn't discourage adoptions. Since 1985, there have been 62,389 adoptions from China to the United States, according to Families with Children from China, a nationwide nondenominational organization of families who have adopted from China.
"This case is not against adoptions," He said. "Adoption is good if it's legal, ethical and appropriate. We never put our child up for adoption.
"We are family."
Millete Birhanemaskel may be reached at 865 342-6268.
Copyright 2007, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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