Court Rules Against Foster Parents

Shaoqiang, left, and Qin Luo He, in Memphis, were granted custody of their biological daughter.
Shaoqiang, left, and Qin Luo He, in Memphis, were granted custody of their biological daughter. (By Mike Maple -- Associated Press)
By Tamara Jones
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a 7-year-old girl raised by an American couple since infancy must be returned to her Chinese parents, who say they never intended to give her up for adoption.

Shaoqiang He, a 42-year-old restaurant manager in Memphis, said he will probably return to China with his family after a transition period for Anna Mae He. She turns 8 on Sunday and has spent all but the first three weeks of her life with foster parents Jerry and Louise Baker.

"We have a big bedroom for her in our apartment, and we're going to buy clothing and furniture for her," He said in the telephone interview. "She knows by her face that she is Chinese, and she must be asking the Bakers, 'Where is my mom? Where is my dad?' "

Neither the Bakers nor their attorneys could be reached for comment. The Bakers have the option of appealing on the federal-court level. Tuesday's ruling set no timetable or conditions for Anna's return, leaving that for a lower court to iron out.

He and his wife, Qin Luo, 37, met the Bakers through the church both families attended. Financial and legal hardships prompted the Hes to place their newborn in the Bakers' care, He said, adding that another church member who ran an adoption agency had vouched for the couple and described them as experienced, loving foster parents. The Hes visited Anna, her father said, but relations turned ugly when they asked for her return at the age of 2.

"We did not give up custody," He said.

The Bakers won a court order barring the Hes from any contact with Anna, but He said his wife used to hide inside a neighborhood gas station to catch glimpses of Anna being taken for a walk or out for a ride. The Hes also have a 4-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.

The custody dispute has wended through the U.S. court system for most of Anna's life, stirring public debate over the emotional, cultural and financial issues involved.

A Memphis judge stripped the Hes of their parental rights in February 2004, citing "parental misconduct" and abandonment, suggesting that the Hes had pursued the custody case merely to delay their own deportation. Shaoqiang He said his family's immigration status remains in legal limbo.

During the acrimonious battle, Qin Luo He had picketed outside the Bakers' home, shouting that she wanted her daughter back. The lower court concluded that her behavior amounted to "emotional instability" that would be "detrimental" to Anna.

But the state's high court found no evidence that the Hes willfully abandoned Anna. The justices concluded that the couple misunderstood the possible implications of transferring custody and guardianship to the Bakers, believing it merely enabled the Bakers to get Anna health insurance.

Emotional upheaval to Anna was dismissed as grounds for the Bakers to keep her. Being taken away from the only family she has really known "does not constitute the substantial harm required to prevent the parents from regaining custody," the Supreme Court ruling said.

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