It has become the civil case of the year: a custody struggle over 5-year-old Anna Mae He by two couples intent on providing her with their version of the best care. On one side are the girl's biological parents, Jack and Casey He, who voluntarily placed the child in foster care at three weeks of age while they were having financial difficulties. Since then, the child has lived with foster parents Jerry and Louise Baker, who now want to adopt Anna Mae.
When their financial situation improved, the Hes sought their daughter's return, but relations had broken down between the two families. Weekly visits made to the Baker home by the Hes were discontinued after a disagreement on the child's second birthday. For the next five months, the Hes made no visit, following an order they said was given to them by police. The Bakers filed for custody, citing the Hes for abandonment and failure to pay child support. A three-year battle ensued in juvenile and chancery courts, culminating with this week's trial to determine if the birth parents will lose their parental rights.
While the biological and custodial parents have had their personal lives exumed during testimony and cross-examination, provisions have been made to protect Anna Mae. Judge Robert Childers issued an order to the media covering the case, outlining rules for what images to show, where to place cameras, and initially forbidding the use of the child's name in court.
For the first few days of the trial, Anna Mae was referred to as the "ward." But that word doesn't translate into Chinese, making it confusing for the birth mother, who understands little English. Anna Mae then became "the child in question." When that got too cumbersome, the plaintiffs' attorney Larry Parrish began referring to the girl by her initials, AMH -- a strategy that worked until Louise Baker took the stand and repeatedly forgot to use the acronym. "It's just hard [not to use her name] when that's what I call her every day," she said.
Unfortunately, what she or any of the parties involved is used to doesn't matter anymore. What does matter is Childers' decision: whether or not to terminate the Hes' parental rights, thereby allowing the Bakers to adopt the child. The child gets no say in the matter. Monday, the court heard from Anna Mae's spokesperson, court-appointed guardian, Kim Mullins. During testimony, Mullins stated that Anna Mae is "perfectly and completely at home with the Bakers, views them as mother and father, and views their children as her brother and sisters. There's no distinction between them and her from what I've observed."
The foster parents testified to Anna Mae's intense relationship with their 4-year-old biological daughter, her outings with Jerry Baker, and her involvement in school, play dates, and family events.
When asked if Anna Mae has seen herself on television, Louise Baker said it was inevitable. "We try to keep her away from [television] when we know something's going to be on about the case. But yesterday she did manage to see something, and she said, 'There's Mommy and Daddy [referring to the Bakers], and there's Casey [He].'"
Thankfully, Anna Mae is too young to read newspapers. If she could, she would have read unsettling things: questions about Jack He's paternity of the child; Casey He's numerous breakdowns and outbursts; a journal kept by Louise Baker recording every visit made to her home by the Hes; and Jerry Baker's offer to pay the Hes $3,000 to give up custody. Throw in Jack He's criminal assault charge (which he was acquitted of in February 2003), the couple's immigration woes, and the Bakers' financial straits, and the waters get murky. Whether or not all the accusations hurled between the couples are true, the long-term damage to their reputations has been done.
Adult and child psychologists and Chinese cultural experts have testified that removal of Anna Mae from one family to the other will be difficult. Witnesses on each side cited cases in which children have been negatively impacted during such transitions or cases in which children grow up resenting their foster families for denying them access to their ethnic background. Some observers view the case as cultural racism, with the Bakers as "Bible-thumping" Christians intent on enforcing their will and religion on the child. Still, the fact remains that for five years Anna Mae has known nothing else.
Casey He opened the trial by telling a Chinese story: Two women fight over a child, and in the end the biological mother gives up to keep the child from suffering. In this case, neither side so far is willing to give up.
When she becomes old enough to fully grasp the events that marked the first few years of her life, maybe Anna Mae will understand that it was all in her "best interest." Hopefully by then, she'll be too happy to care.