A Tug of War Over Anna Mae He

updated 03/29/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/29/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

In the suburban Memphis home of her guardians Jerry and Louise Baker, Anna Mae He is a typically energetic 5-year-old: When she's not romping with Aimee, 4, the youngest of the Bakers' four children, she's drawing, reading, doing puzzles and singing favorite songs like "Jesus Loves Me."

Ten miles away in the one-bedroom apartment of Anna Mae's biological parents, Jack and Casey He, the only traces of their little girl are photos on tables and taped to the walls. They have been barred by a judge from even contacting their eldest child while awaiting the outcome of a furious battle with the Bakers, who agreed to take in their child while the Hes battled financial and legal problems in the first days of Anna Mae's life. "They told us, 'It is God's will for us to help you. We are Christian families,' " says Jack He, 39, who met the Bakers through a church-affiliated adoption agency." 'When you get back on your feet, you can have your child back.' "

That statement is just one of many being hotly disputed in a case filled with claims of deception and abandonment now before circuit court judge Robert Childers in Memphis. At the crux of the matter: whether the custody arrangement reached by the families was temporary, as the Hes insist, or valid until Anna Mae becomes an adult, as claimed by the Bakers. "We agreed to raise Anna Mae for her entire life," says Louise Baker, 42, a homemaker who, with her husband, Jerry, 45, a banker, is seeking to adopt Anna Mae permanently. "We weren't just going to babysit her till they decided they'd take her back."

Initially, relations between the warring families were quite affectionate. Soon before they met in 1999, Jack, a graduate economics student from China and the then-pregnant Casey, 36, experienced what he calls "the most terrible nightmare in my life." A fellow student at the University of Memphis accused him of sexually assaulting her. Although a jury would acquit him five years later, the accusation alone prompted the university to revoke his scholarship and fire him from his job as a computer assistant. Without a steady income and with their first child due any day, the Hes "were in very deep trouble and with no money to support a family," says a friend, Jing Huang.

That's when a pastor at their Presbyterian church suggested the Hes contact Mid-South Christian Services, a private adoption agency. There, they met the Bakers, who had acted as foster parents in the past. After Anna Mae's birth, an agreement was reached: The Bakers would keep Anna Mae for 90 days while the Hes straightened out their affairs.

But things only got worse for the struggling couple. In April 1999, a month before their custody was to end, He was arrested in the sexual assault case. The Bakers agreed to continue caring for Anna Mae—but only if they were named the child's guardians, which would give them full parental rights. The Hes agreed, they say, but without realizing the agreement could only be reversed by court order. "If we had known that by signing custody to the Bakers we would end up in court, facing termination of parental rights, we never would have signed it," says Jack, who now works at a Chinese restaurant.

The Hes visited Anna Mae some 80 times before tensions flared. "The more Jack and Casey wanted to visit their daughter," says one of their pro bono attorneys, David Siegel, "the greater resistance they received from the Bakers." (As evidence, Siegel points to a journal that Louise kept.) In April 2000 and April 2001 the Hes petitioned to regain custody of Anna Mae but were turned down because of their unresolved legal problems. Then, on Jan.28, 2001, Anna Mae's second birthday, the Bakers denied the Hes' request to take their daughter for a family portrait, saying she was ill. The Hes refused to leave without her, prompting the Bakers to call the police.

Intimidated, the Hes, who say they feared they would be arrested, didn't try to visit for a period of four months—which may constitute legal abandonment in Tennessee—and the Bakers went to court seeking to terminate the Hes' parental rights and formally adopt Anna Mae. Once, while shopping last December, the Hes happened to spot Anna Mae, who was with two of the Bakers' daughters, Hope and Aimee. According to Hope, 18, Casey put her hands on Anna Mae and screamed, "That's my baby!" Such incidents fuel the Bakers' contention that the Hes are emotionally unstable.

Judge Childers is scheduled to deliver a decision about Anna Mae's fate in early spring. The Hes, who have two younger children, Andy, 3, and Avita, 18 months, say they just want to reunite their family and return to China. The Bakers, meanwhile, are praying that day will never arrive. "This is not about America vs. China," says Jerry. "It's about a little girl who's been in our home since she was 3 weeks old."

By Michael A. Lipton. Barbara Sandler in Memphis

From Our Partners