One Family Reunited, Another Torn Apart
The kids got off to a quiet start, as kids who barely know each other often do. Soon, though, Anna Mae He, 8, and siblings Andy, 6, and Avita, 4—who had never spent more than a few minutes together—found common ground in pizza and cookies. They held hands and played board games and marveled how much they looked alike, says their dad, Shaoqiang "Jack" He. When the 90-minute reunion at an office building in Memphis ended March 18, Anna Mae said, "I had fun today," recalls Jack. His wife, Qin Luo "Casey" He, 39—who wore a blue skirt because she had read in the press that Anna Mae liked the color—"was so happy," Jack says. "It was a good beginning."
A good beginning, perhaps, but a difficult road ahead. The Hes, immigrants from China, and Jerry and Louise Baker, a couple from Cordova, Tenn., have been fighting over the future of Anna Mae for more than seven years, not long after her parents, in the depths of a legal and financial crisis, put their daughter in the care of the American couple when Anna Mae was 3 weeks old. Relations between the families soured, and both took legal action to claim Anna Mae as their own. Finally, on Jan. 23, the Tennessee supreme court returned full custody to the Hes, reversing years of court decisions in favor of the Bakers. The gradual process of returning Anna Mae to her parents began a few weeks ago. Jerry Baker, 48, a banker, declined to speak to PEOPLE, citing a court order. But in January he told The City Paper in Nashville, "This is the most difficult thing we have ever gone through."
At the center of the storm is Anna Mae herself, a second grader who loves soccer and Taco Bell, Jack notes, and doesn't speak a word of her parents' native language. Since 1999 she has lived as a member of the Baker family, a sister to their children. Breaking ties with the family now to resume life with the Hes will present huge challenges, says California child psychologist Donald Saposnek, an expert in custody disputes who has followed the case. "It's a complete cultural and psychological identity change," he says. "That's an awful lot to ask of an 8-year-old." (See box for more on Anna Mae's future.) Pledging to put years of rancor behind them, Jack He, 42, a maintenance man at a local Baptist church, says today he wants the two families to be on peaceful terms. "I want to be friends in the eyes of the child, so Anna Mae will be more comfortable," he says.
Eight years ago the Hes were in a state of desperation when the families first met through a Christian adoption agency. Accused by a fellow student of sexual assault during his wife's pregnancy (he was eventually acquitted), Jack He lost a scholarship that paid his tuition and much of the couple's expenses. The Bakers agreed to act as foster parents. But within a year, acrimony flared over who could best care for Anna Mae. Unraveling years of legal claims and counterclaims, the Tennessee supreme court ultimately sided with the Hes, who at one point were accused of abandoning their child.
Today, the Hes must convince Anna Mae that was never the case. Jack was so nervous about their first meeting in years, he had to take a sleeping pill the night before. "I was concerned she might be hostile. Maybe she'd be yelling, crying and shouting, 'I hate you, you're bad people! I'm not Chinese!'" Fortunately, the meetings have gone well, he says. And although the Hes have not ruled out moving back to China, they say they would like to stay in Memphis—and allow Anna Mae to continue to see the Bakers. "I think we're moving in the right direction," says Jack. "This is our complete family."
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