At first glance, Anna Mae He is a typical American 9-year-old girl. She thinks Hannah Montana is cool (but can't tell you why); she skates around on retractable roller skate shoes, and at every opportunity she pulls out her Game Boy. She likes to read, is a straight-A student and wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up.
But behind her shy smile and expressive eyes, there's a little girl who is torn between two families, two cultures and two countries. The centerpiece in a bitter custody battle, Anna Mae saw her world turned upside down last July when the Tennessee Supreme Court, in a stunning decision, ruled that she had to leave the family who raised her and live instead with a family she barely knew.
On Jan. 28, 1999, Anna Mae was born to Jack and Casey He, a young Chinese couple who had recently come to the United States so that Jack could pursue a doctorate at the University of Memphis in Tennessee.
American Dream Crushed
Several months before Anna Mae's birth, a female student accused Jack He of sexually assaulting her on campus. Although later acquitted of the charges, Jack He lost his position at the university and his student visa was revoked. The couple's income dropped to about $400 a month.
When Anna Mae was born a month premature, the Hes worried that they could not pay her medical bills. They needed help and sought a family who could care for their daughter while they tried to resolve their financial and legal difficulties.
The Hes contacted Mid-South Christian Services, an adoption and family services agency who introduced them to Jerry and Louise Baker, a Christian, middle-class family raising children of their own in the Memphis suburbs.
The Bakers agreed to care for Anna Mae for 90 days, but when the Hes, still facing financial hardships, weren't ready to take her back, they agreed to sign a consent order awarding custody to the Bakers. According to the Hes, it was a temporary arrangement so that Anna Mae could have health insurance. According to the Bakers, both families had agreed that the Bakers would raise Anna Mae through adolescence.
The Hes' weekly visits to see Anna Mae became more and more tense. "When [Anna Mae] was having her second birthday, we went to visit her at [the] Bakers' house," said Jack He. "We had agreement to take her to [a photo] studio for picture taking. The Bakers refused. The Bakers called the police to remove us.… Ever since then we could not see our child."
But according to the Bakers, the Hes were creating a disturbance in their home and the police simply escorted them outside.
Drawn-Out Custody Case
A month later, the Hes tried to reclaim custody of Anna Mae, hoping to send her to China to stay with relatives until they were able to care for her themselves.
"The Bakers were convinced they could offer Anna Mae a better life in Memphis. They filed a petition to adopt her, and to terminate the Hes' parental rights, alleging willful abandonment It was the beginning of a battle that would last more than six years.
"We had [the] American dream before we came here," Jack He said. "We thought that America is a country of freedom, human rights, democracy. We thought equality — everybody the same, equally treated. In our family the American dream was broken by this story. Crushed — American dream."
Desperate, Casey He often hung around the Bakers' neighborhood, hoping to catch a glimpse of her daughter. Sometimes she even picketed.
"She was holding a sign in front of the Bakers' house saying, 'Mr. Baker, give me back my child,'" Jack He said. "Sometimes the Bakers might take Anna Mae out for a walk. So she was trying to see."
On Feb. 7, 2002, a no contact order was issued barring the Hes from having any contact -- direct or indirect -- with Anna Mae.
The case moved through the courts, and in 2004, Tennessee Circuit Judge Robert Childers delivered a devastating blow to the Hes. Childers ruled that the Hess had abandoned Anna Mae and that she was "in a strongly bonded, deep-seated, healthy relationship with the Baker family." Childers said that breaking the bond with the Bakers would cause Anna Mae substantial harm and that terminating the Hes parental rights was in her best interest. Childers ordered that the Hes' parental rights be terminated and gave full custody to the Bakers.
"Jerry sat down and cried, and I started jumping up and down," said Louise Baker.
But the Hes had quite a different reaction. "We could not believe it," said Jack He. "We were shocked.... This is just the beginning of the battle.... We are determined to fight one year, two year, three years, until justice comes."
It took more three more years, years in which Anna Mae bonded even more closely with Bakers, and the Hes worried that they might never see their daughter again. Finally, on Jan. 23, 2007, just five days before Anna Mae's eighth birthday, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued a stunning decision. It determined that the lower courts had erred and that Anna Mae belonged with her biological family.
"I [will] always remember that day," said Jack He "I said justice prevails. Justice prevails."
"We were unprepared, which is foolish, but we were," said Jerry Baker. "We just knew that no one could ever remove this child from our home, and we were wrong." (CLICK HERE to read the Bakers' letter to the Tennessee Supreme Court).
A Wrenching Transition
The Bakers struggled with how best to tell Anna Mae that she would have to leave her home to go live with a family she barely knew. "The night that we told her … she crawled up in my arms," recalled Louise Baker. "And she said, 'Hold me like a baby, Mommy.' And I put her in my arms and held her, and I said, 'I love you, Anna.' She looked up at me and smiled. She said 'I love you, too.' And tears just started rolling down her face."
"When the decision was made to move Anna … she was inconsolable, because she had no control, she had lost every bit of control in her life," said Debbie Grabarkiewcz, a child advocacy specialist with A Child's Best Interest, who has worked with Anna for the past three years. "And that's what these courts do to these kids …. Anna will pay the greatest price."
In July of 2007, Anna Mae was reunited with her biological parents and her little brother, Andy, and sister Avita. It was a transition that both the Hes and the Bakers found heartwrenching.
At first, Anna Mae seemed angry and withdrawn, refusing to eat, drink or sleep in her bed. She said she was afraid her birthparents were going to poison her. She also told the Hes that she was afraid of going to China. "She used to think that China was a remote, foreign or weird country," said Jack He.
But then, a turning point. According to the Hes, Anna Mae had secretly drawn a picture of two little girls holding hands, standing in a bed of flowers. It was a picture of Anna Mae and the Bakers' youngest daughter, Aimee, who had been Anna Mae's closest friend and companion for most of her life.
When the Hes found the picture, they had a talk with Anna Mae. "We love you…. We want to make you happy," said Jack He. "You want to see Aimee? If you miss Aimee…we encourage that. We understand that. So we are going to make arrangements for you to see Aimee."
From Reunion to Separation
Aimee was invited for a visit and then sleepovers, and from that point on, say the Hes, Anna Mae began to trust them and to open up.
"[Anna Mae] came to me while I was eating my dinner…. She asked me how to say 'mommy' in Chinese and 'daddy' in Chinese," said Jack He. "I said, 'In Chinese, daddy, we say, baba, baba. Mommy is mama.' And in a couple of days after that, she began to address us as Baba and Mama. And I think that's the most amazing moment."
Jack He realized that instead of maintaining the wall that existed for so long between his family and the Bakers, it was important to open a window so that both families could love Anna Mae and she would no longer feel torn between them.
"I think for the best interest of a child," Jack He said. "You know, Anna loves the Bakers. And if I say something or do something negative about the Bakers, it means I'm holding [back] Anna. And I don't want to do that. We just move on and take care of the child."
Last month, the Hes extended an invitation to the Bakers to help them celebrate Anna Mae's ninth birthday, even though the Hes had not celebrated a birthday with Anna Mae since she was a year old. They asked only that the Bakers try to contain their emotions, and not to refer to themselves as mommy and daddy, but rather respect the Hes' parental rights. The Bakers agreed.
"What's happened in the past is in the past," said Jerry Baker. "We're very grateful to the Hes for allowing us the opportunity to start a dialogue with them."
But even as Anna Mae was experiencing the love of both families for the first time, she was facing another dramatic change. The Hes, who had been granted temporary permission to stay in the country until the custody hearings were completed, were facing deportation back to China. Instead of waiting to be deported, they decided to leave the U.S. voluntarily.
For the Bakers, it was as if they were reliving a nightmare: Having just reunited with Anna, they were about to lose her again. The Hes are planning to leave for China on Feb. 9, and once out of the country, there's no guarantee when, or even if, they can return.
"What we're hoping is that … American people might step up and the Hes should be allowed to remain in the United States," said Jerry Baker. "They should be allowed to earn a decent living.... Our hope is that they will be allowed to return."
The Bakers, who once fought to have the Hes deported, are now asking the government to find a way to let them stay.
"I truly do believe that you have two mothers that love the same child," said Jerry Baker. "I truly do."