A judge declared a Chinese immigrant couple unfit to raise their 5-year-old daughter, leaving her in the custody of the American foster family that has raised the child since shortly after her birth.
Judge Robert Childers issued an order Wednesday that terminates the parental rights of Shaoqiang and Qin Luo He, who have tried for four years to win back the daughter they put in foster care because of financial hardships.
The judge said it was in the child’s best interest to stay with Jerry and Louise Baker, the family she has come to regard as her own.
The court found that the Hes willfully abandoned and provided no support for their daughter, Anna Mae, from Jan. 29 to June 20, 2001. Childers also ruled that the Hes sought custody only to prevent their deportation.
“The court concludes, by clear and convincing evidence, that there is parental misconduct or inability to parent by the Hes,” the ruling said.
When the trial wrapped up last month, Childers said he would consider what was better for the child — leaving her with the Bakers in their middle-class suburban home or reuniting her with the parents who plan to return to China.
The trial drew attention from Chinese-Americans and Chinese citizens across the United States. The Chinese embassy in Washington sent representatives to pretrial hearings and wrote to the Tennessee courts seeking assurance the Hes would be treated fairly.
The Hes were in a Memphis hotel room when they heard the ruling. The mother was holding her two other children, crying uncontrollably and watching the Bakers hold a news conference on television.
Couple plans to appeal
“She’s very heartbroken, and she doesn’t know what to do,” Shaoqiang He said. “This is a typical travesty of justice.”
A lawyer for the Hes, David Siegel, said the couple would appeal. “I can’t speak for the federal court, but my hope is they will delay any deportation while the appeals are pending,” he said.
The Bakers argued that Anna Mae became part of their family, which includes four biological children, and taking her away would be emotionally devastating for her.
Jerry Baker said he didn’t tell Anna Mae about the custody battle. She and the Baker’s youngest biological child, Aimee, 4, were at home playing while the adults anxiously awaited the judge’s ruling.
“We’re so relieved and proud that Anna is going to be allowed to wake up in the same bed that she woke up in since she was 3 weeks old,” Baker said. “She’s going to be allowed to go to school with her little sister, Aimee, and one day, we’re going to be allowed to walk her down an aisle when she gets married.”
‘He is dishonest’
In his ruling, the judge said the evidence showed “Mr. He to be a person of questionable character. By his own admission he is dishonest.” According to the court, Shaoqiang He admitted lying about his income under oath in a December 2002 deposition.
The judge also said Qin Luo He was “unstable” and demonstrated a pattern of irrational and bizarre behavior. He cited how she would begin sobbing when asked difficult questions but regained composure for other questions.
The Bakers’ lawyer accused the mother of losing emotional control when she ran into her daughter with members of the Baker family at a Wal-Mart in December. A disturbance had to be quieted by police.
The judge also cited China’s “one-child-per-family” policy in his ruling, noting that families with more than one child in China were subject to financial penalties and the loss of government benefits.
Qin Luo He testified at trial that her ignorance of American law and inability to speak English allowed the Bakers to trick her into giving them legal custody of her first child. She said the foster care was supposed to be temporary.
The Bakers filed a petition to keep Anna Mae in June 2001, and the Hes were placed under a court order to stay away from their daughter.
Shaoqiang He, who has two advanced degrees from American colleges, came to Tennessee to work on a Ph.D. in business at the University of Memphis. His trouble began in 1998 when he was accused of sexual assault by another student.
He was eventually acquitted, but the university had already taken away his scholarship and stipend. The government revoked his visa and started deportation proceedings, which were put on hold because of the custody fight.
The Hes say they were forced to find help caring for Anna Mae because they were out of work and faced large legal and medical bills.
The Hes have made a living since then primarily by working in Chinese restaurants.