A wrenching custody battle, over a Chinese child raised in suburban Tennessee, that has drawn international attention and has nearly torn two families apart, took another twist over the weekend when the child arrived in China with her new family.
Anna Mae He, 9, raised by an American couple almost since birth — but recently returned to her Chinese birth parents, following a stunning Tennessee Supreme Court decision — arrived in Beijing, Sunday morning, and almost immediately began to talk about returning to the U.S.
When an ABC News crew, that greeted the family in the Beijing airport, asked Anna Mae's birth father, Jack He, how long he planned to remain there, Anna Mae blurted out, "two days!" before her father could respond.
When he said he has a new job as a college professor in Hunan province in China, where they had returned to live with their daughter, Anna Mae piped up and shouted, "It's in Tennessee!" "No, it's in Hunan,'' He replied patiently. "Hunan is my hometown."
The moment underscored the enormous, heartbreaking challenges facing a couple, trying to reclaim a child as their own after she was raised for nine years in another culture by another family — one with a seemingly equal claim to her love.
In another exchange with ABC News, the young girl seemed guarded.
Asked what she was looking forward to in China, she replied, "I don't know." "Are you nervous?" "I don't know." Asked whether she had a message for Aimee Baker, the sister she grew up with in Tennessee, she said she didn't know. "How was the plane?" "I don't know.''
Anna Mae's arrival in China is the culmination of a fervent seven-year custody struggle that has reached alarming extremes of bitterness, worked its way through one courtroom after another, and finally, in its last, emotionally exhausting stages, produced a reconciliation of sorts — an unexpected and welcome affirmation of the one thing both families appear to share: a sincere love for Anna Mae. (CLICK HERE to see photos of Anna Mae's first day in China, February 11, taken by a family friend, Dr. Dongxiao Yue.)
The child's cultural roots are evident. 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.
And how well she fares in her new home in China is the big question on the lips and in the hearts of everyone from her adoptive parents in Tennessee, to judges who have ruled on her case, social workers who have sought to monitor the transition, friends and family of both the Bakers and the Hes, and an international television audience.
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.
Several months before Anna Mae's birth, a female student accused He of sexually assaulting her on campus. Although later acquitted of the charges, 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 of the child to the Bakers. According to the Hes, it was a temporary arrangement, so that Anna Mae could have health insurance. But, according to the Bakers, both families had agreed that the Bakers would raise Anna Mae through adolescence.
The He's 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] Baker's house," said 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."
The Bakers tell their own side to the story — they say the Hes created 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, convinced they could offer Anna Mae a better life in Memphis, filed a petition to adopt her, and to terminate the He's 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," 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..."
Desperate, Casey He often hung around the Baker's neighborhood, hoping to catch a glimpse of her daughter. Sometimes she even picketed.
"She was holding a sign in front of the Baker's house, saying, 'Mr. Baker, give me back my child,'" 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 Hes 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 He's parental rights was in her best interest. And so, he 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 years, three years, until justice comes."
It took more than three more years, years in which Anna Mae bonded even more closely with the 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 8th 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 2007, Anna Mae was reunited with her biological parents and her little brother, Andy, and sister Avita. It was a heart wrenching transition for both the Hes and the Bakers.
At first, Anna Mae seemed angry and withdrawn, refusing to eat, drink or sleep in her bed. She said she was afraid her birth parents 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, there was 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 Baker's 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 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."
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," 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 9th birthday, even though the Hes had not celebrated a birthday with Anna Mae since she was 1 year old. They asked only that the Bakers try to contain their emotions, and not refer to themselves as mommy and daddy, but rather, respect the He's parental rights. The Bakers agreed.
"What's happened in the past is in the past," said Baker. "We're very grateful to the Hes for allowing us the opportunity to start a dialogue with them."
But even as Anna Mae experienced the love of both families for the first time, she faced another dramatic change. The Hes, who had been granted temporary permission to stay in the U.S. until the custody hearings were completed, faced 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. For the Hes, taking Anna Mae home to China came with a mighty cost. There's no guarantee when, or even if, they can return to the U.S.
"What we're hoping is that American people might step up, and the Hes should be allowed to remain in the United States," said 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 Baker. "I truly do."
The Long Goodbye
Jerry and Louise Baker said goodbye to Anna Mae on Saturday.
First, her stepsister Aimee playfully hid from Anna Mae, and then emerged with a gift, a necklace.
"The necklace say we are best friends,'' Aimee told ABC News.
The two children hugged and said goodbye.
"Are you excited?'' Baker asked Anna Mae in their final moments together. "It's going to be fun! Will you think about me?" he asked her. "I love you about this much,'' he said, widening his arms.
Later, he reminded her of the MP3 player he and his wife had given Anna Mae as a going away present.
"You can listen on the airplane and rock and roll!" he said enthusiastically, clearly struggling with his emotions. "You are going to have fun!'' he continued, as tears welled up in his eyes.
"Just remember," he told Anna Mae, "when you look at the moon, we see the same moon and pray to the same God.
"You go to China, and you tell them you are from where Elvis is from,'' he said, recalling the child's frequent Elvis impressions, "and [that] your pa went to school with Elvis."
Moments later, the Bakers and the Hes hugged for a final time and said goodbye.
And with that, Anna Mae He left the hills of Tennessee for a new life halfway around the world.