For the Love of Anna Mae

Two Families Come Together After Custody Battle, Only to Be Torn Apart


Feb. 7, 2008—  

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 Although later acquitted of the charges, Jack He lost his position at the university and his student visa was revoked.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."

Copyright © 2008 ABC News Internet Ventures


The full story of Anna Mae

See Wikipedia
See also  "Anna Mae is not coming home" at
When I read  Anna Mae He 's story, I'm angry at the western countries governement and I'm getting more angry at PAPs and APs  for wanting to make of other's children their "own" children.

the power of love v. money

While I was really disgusted by the move made by the Bakers... (claiming parental abandonment so they could obtain a formal legal adoption was shameful), I was amazed by her parents ability to fight and win their daughter back.   Just because the adoption and bonding took place within the second family doesn't mean it was right or fair.   Quite frankly, the entire situation surrounding the He family is just very sad and tragic. 

I'm getting more angry at PAPs and APs  for wanting to make of other's children their "own" children.

I agree that there are some people who develop a disturbing sense of entitled ownership, especially when a small child is involved.  I suppose this happens because some people just don't know how to establish and keep certain emotional boundaries.  As far as I'm concerned, the Bakers should not have become so emotionally involved with another couple's child.  It shows a lack of parental respect and that's when I see "supplemental parental love" as being suffocating, coveting, and creepy.

After reading the Anna Mae story, I was left wondering, why don't more people see how the selfish desire to adopt hurts babies who have financially struggling parents?

the power of possession

I see some parallel with my own adoption. Once I was placed with what at the time were my aunt and uncle, they didn't do anything to make sure I would return to my mother. By only taking care of me and forgetting about my mother, they did something that was along the lines of the Bakers.

Child in US custody fight adjusts to new country

CHONGQING, China (AP) — Nine-year-old Anna He stands quietly amid the chaos in her boarding school dorm on a Sunday night, a frenzy of little girls chattering in Chinese as they change the linens on rows of wooden beds.

Anna is an outsider here. Her parents are Chinese, but she cannot talk to her schoolmates because she grew up in America.

This small girl with watchful dark eyes was at the center of one of the longest custody battles in the U.S. in recent times, a high-profile seven-year dispute marked by racial and cultural undercurrents. On one side were the Bakers, a white family in suburban Memphis, Tenn. On the other were the Hes (pronounced HUHS), immigrants scraping by with low-paying jobs before they returned to China.

The legal fight is finally over. And a new story has started for Anna.

Last year the Tennessee Supreme Court ordered her returned to the Chinese couple, and the family moved to China in February. Since then, Anna has lived in two cities and attended three schools. After her parents' marriage fell apart, she was sent to boarding school this fall and goes home on weekends.

"I really don't like living at school," Anna murmurs in English, buttoning and unbuttoning her sweater absently as the other girls flutter bed sheets in the air.


Anna was born on Jan. 28, 1999, a few weeks after her father was accused of sexual assault by a fellow student at the University of Memphis. Shaoqiang He lost his scholarship and graduate student stipend, although he was ultimately found not guilty.

With very little income and no health insurance, the Hes asked an adoption agency to find a foster family until they got back on their feet. Anna went to live with Jerry and Louise Baker when she was less than a month old.

In June that year, the Hes signed court papers that transferred custody of Anna to the Bakers so she could get health insurance. The Bakers eventually sought to adopt Anna, saying the Hes had abandoned her.

Anna's parents wanted her back, and the case wound through four different courts. One judge suggested the couple only wanted to keep Anna to avoid getting deported, calling Anna's natural father deceitful and the actions of her mother "calculating, almost theatrical." For five years, the courts did not allow the Hes to see Anna.

The Bakers in turn questioned the quality of life for little girls in China, where families have a traditional preference for boys.

By the time Anna returned to her Chinese parents last year, she was no longer a baby but an 8-year-old American girl. She was unable to speak or understand Chinese, and American classmates told her the country would be "weird."

Anna's parents, also known by their American first names Casey and Jack, fell out just five months after returning to their native country. Her mother, Qin Luo, took the kids from the city of Changsha, where He had found work, to her hometown of Chongqing in southwestern China.

The mother and children — Anna, 8-year-old Andy and 6-year-old Avita — now live in a simple two-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of town.


On a recent Friday night, Anna and Avita huddle in one room, dressed in matching Hello Kitty tops and whispering to each other in English on a bed strewn with a Chinese checkers board, marbles and miniature plastic figurines.

Here at home, everybody talks to Anna in English. Her brother and sister are perfectly fluent in English and Chinese. Everyone calls her "Anna," instead of her Chinese name "He Sijia."

After nine months in China, Anna still does not speak much Chinese, a notoriously difficult language to learn. She says she can understand some things "if it's really easy."

"At class, I never understand," she says, with her childish manner of speaking, pronouncing 'R's as 'W's. And Anna is reticent about communicating with other kids in Chinese because, "Well, they never understand me."

Anna didn't tell her classmates about Halloween "because I don't know how to say Halloween in Chinese." Nor could she alert her teacher when she spotted "a big black bug" in the vegetables at lunch one day.

Anna is short for her age, but has a round tummy that she and her mother attribute to her "meat-atarian" diet. Like many other 9-year-olds, she has front teeth too big for her face.

At first Anna says she is "scared" to answer questions about herself, but soon she's eager to talk.

"Well, I liked America. I liked to be at school, I liked math and science," she says. "I have, like, a lot of friends and I get to be with everyone that can speak English."

And what are three things she likes about China?

"Well, let me think ... well, I have made a friend but now she is gone. Her name was Sarah. That's one thing. I'm trying to think of a second thing. Second thing I like about China ... is ... well, I don't really know. I don't know ... There's so many cars and a lot of people smoke. I really hate that."

Anna should be in fourth grade but was placed a grade lower because of her language difficulties. She says school in China is "five times harder" than in the U.S. She has a backpack filled with papers from her American school, most marked in green ink with a perfect score.

"At school, on my report card, I always had A's, never one B," she says. "In China I maybe got too many B's and C's."

Anna hates ballet, and her favorite class is piano.

"I like music ... it takes the troubles out of my mind."

Do you have a lot of troubles?


Like what?

"Well, I don't like school," she replies.

What do you wish could happen to make it better?

"I wish everyone would speak English," she says, laughing.

When asked about the Bakers, Anna pulls away. She rolls onto her back. She covers her face with her hands. She says she has forgotten what it was like when she moved from one family to the other, and whether she was happy or sad.

"I don't even know," she says.

At dinner in a Chinese restaurant near their home that Friday night, Avita snatches two duck drumsticks while Andy hacks at a crunchy potato dish. Anna closes her eyes and puts her hands together.

"Her teacher asked me, what is she doing? I had to tell her, she's praying," Luo recalls with a laugh.


Anna says she does not miss her father, whom she has not seen since July.

"No one knows where he is. One time, this one day, maybe nighttime, he was just gone and we never seen him again. And he took away his computer," she explains.

He, who teaches at a tutoring center in Changsha, says that he left the family's apartment after a fight with his wife and that she took the children away.

Luo has accused her husband of infidelity, hitting her and neglecting the children. He denies the accusations.

He has filed for divorce and said in court documents he wants custody of all three children.

"It's not my intention to really divorce her," says He, who calls himself a "family-oriented man." "It was to intimidate her to not move away from home with the kids without my knowledge ... I'm still hoping that she will come back to me."

Luo sent all three kids to boarding school after her brother convinced her it would be too hard to handle them, the daily commute, the schoolwork and the household duties all by herself. She visits them at least three times a week.

"It was a hard decision," she says. "Thinking about it, I would get so upset and cry."

Like many mothers in China, Luo fills her children's time at home with lessons: piano on Friday evenings, Chinese tutoring on Saturday mornings, art on Sunday afternoons. There is no television in the apartment; instead, Luo bought a new upright piano for 15,000 yuan ($2,200).

"I feel that with the kids, I should do everything possible to give them as many education opportunities as I can," she says. "When they grow up they'll be able to get ahead."

Luo, 40, seems stretched a bit thin trying to keep up with the kids. She folds clothes laid out to dry on a space heater while trying to cajole them into picking up toys. She follows after the girls with a hairbrush, but they play with stuffed animals as if she's not there.

Luo does not work, although she says she would eventually like a job. She is supported by her brother, a successful businessman. He pays for the children's schooling — 7,000 yuan (about $1,000) a semester a child — and owns their apartment.

The Bakers renewed contact with Anna after her parents separated, and they call every Saturday afternoon. They send care packages filled with Anna's favorite things: stuffed animals, macaroni and cheese, chocolate.

Louise Baker wonders if it's common for young children in China to go to boarding school. In fact, many parents who can afford it send away children as young as 5 or 6 because they think a structured setting is better for education or they are simply too busy with work.

"Things have gotten really good," Baker says in a telephone interview. "At first she was real quiet, standoffish, but now she chitter-chatters a lot."

Baker won't talk about Anna's current situation. All she will say is, they're happy Luo has the children and "grateful" to her for allowing the telephone calls. They are discussing the possibility of a visit.

"We just want her to be happy and to grow up and to continue to love the Lord," Baker says, unable to hold back her tears. "We're just happy she's got the love of two families."


Anna and Avita sleep in adjoining beds on the fourth floor of a large dormitory building, sharing a room and bathroom with about 20 other girls. They are supervised by one teacher.

The children are out of bed at 6:30 a.m., back in by 8:25 p.m. The day starts with a morning run and ends with showers, three girls to a stall to speed things along. They wash their hair once a week, on Thursdays.

"I really hate living at school," Anna says. "The only good thing is going home."

Luo is hoping to get enough money to send the children to an international day school in Chongqing. She expects to receive a large compensation package from the demolition of a house she owns there.

She also thinks about moving back to the U.S., although she knows it would be hard to find a good job with her limited English.

"They were born there, they're used to the lifestyle there. There's not so much pressure on them at school," she says.

On the coffee table at home is a small purple notebook pasted with messages on colorful paper from Anna's former classmates. Anna reaches for it.

"Some of them are in cursive," she points out, reading aloud. "Dear Anna, I hope you have an awesome birthday and a great time in China. I'll miss you." "Dear Anna, have a very happy birthday, I hope all your wishes come true."

After looking at more than a dozen notes, Anna turns to a blank page.

"No more," she says, matter-of-factly. "No more."

You know how this reads to me?

This story seems to tell the exact same story non-English speaking international adoptees experience when starting their lives in America.

[Dare I suggest this young child grow a tough upper-lip and learn how to "acclimate"?]

Ain't adoption and all the ways it can benefit a child (and family) simply GRAND?

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