The Tennessee Supreme Court cleared the way Tuesday for a Chinese couple to be reunited with the daughter they placed in foster care with an American family nearly eight years ago.
The court overturned a decision by a Memphis judge who had taken away the parental rights of Shaoqiang and Qin Luo He, ruling that they had abandoned the child. That decision attracted widespread publicity and was criticized for ethnic bias.
Their daughter, Anna Mae He, has been living with Jerry and Louise Baker in suburban Memphis since she was 3 weeks old. Anna Mae turns 8 later this month.
The Hes had argued in court for years that they sent Anna Mae to live with the Bakers only temporarily because of their legal and financial hardships.
"This evidence overwhelmingly shows that the parents' voluntary relinquishment of custody was entered as a temporary measure to provide health insurance for (Anna Mae) with the full intent that custody would be returned," the court said Tuesday.
Shaoqiang He said he and his wife will move as quickly as possible to get their daughter back.
"When she wakes up each morning, she'll wake up and see her mother and daddy and her brother and sister, and we'll all have the same faces she has," he said.
Jerry Baker refused to talk about the ruling, saying he was expecting to meet with his lawyer.
"Right now, we're not sure what we're going to do," Baker said. "We're going to try to do what's best" for Anna Mae.
Anna Mae was born in January 1999 shortly after her father, a student at the University of Memphis, was accused of a sexual assault. The charge, for which he was ultimately acquitted, cost him a scholarship and the student stipend that was his family's primary source of income.
The Bakers refused to give Anna Mae up, and they have been trying to adopt her over her parents' objections.
The Bakers have said Anna Mae has no connection to her biological parents, and contend she would have a better life in the United States than in China. They have described her as an ordinary, happy child who did not completely understand the legal fight surrounding her.
The Hes have said they would return to China, but could not leave Anna Mae behind. But Shaoqiang He said Tuesday they are now unsure whether they will move back to China.
In 2004, Chancery Court Judge Robert Childers of Memphis took away the Hes' parental rights, ruling that they had abandoned Anna Mae under Tennessee law by not visiting her for four months.
Lawyers with the Child Advocacy Clinic at the University of Memphis, Loyola University in Chicago and Vanderbilt University in Nashville had argued that Childers was wrong to compare the parenting skills of the Bakers and the Hes or to consider whether Anna Mae would have a better life in suburban America than in China.
The Tennessee Supreme Court agreed that living conditions in China were not relevant in this case.
"Financial advantage and affluent surroundings simply may not be a consideration in determining a custody dispute between a parent and a non-parent," the court wrote.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday sent the case back to the Shelby County Juvenile Court, where the custody fight began, and ordered it to resolve the dispute "with a view toward reunification" of Anna Mae with her biological parents.