A trial began Monday over custody of a young Chinese girl whose parents have struggled for almost five years to get her back from an American couple. Less than a month after daughter Anna Mae was born in 1999, Shaoqiang He and Qin Luo put her in foster care with Jerry and Louise Baker. The Hes say they were out of work and unable to care for the child when they signed juvenile court papers giving custody of their daughter to the Bakers. The Bakers have had the child ever since and are trying to adopt her over the Hes' objections. In an opening statement to Circuit Court Judge Robert Childers, who is hearing the case without a jury, Larry Parrish, the Bakers' lawyer, said his clients are the only parents Anna Mae has known and she should not be taken from them. Parrish said He wanted to get rid of the child permanently but was later pressured by his wife to try to get her back. "He has all the traits of a pathological liar," Parrish said. "These people are not stable." David Siegel, a lawyer for the Hes, said they had no intention of giving their daughter up for adoption. "They thought they were entering into a temporary arrangement," Siegel said.
The trial is on a petition by the Bakers seeking to terminate the Hes' parental rights on the basis of abandonment. Such a ruling would clear the way for adoption. The Hes contend the Bakers have not let them see their daughter for more than three years. The trial is expected to last a week to 10 days with testimony from psychologists, court workers involved in the custody arrangement, character witnesses and others. Shaoqiang He's legal and financial troubles began in 1998 when he was on scholarship as a graduate student in economics at the University of Memphis. A female student accused him of fondling her and He was expelled, losing the student stipend that was his main source of income. He refused legal advice to plead guilty to sexual assault in exchange for a light sentence and demanded a jury trial. A jury acquitted him of the charge last year. Since He's departure from the university, he and his wife have primarily made their livings working in Chinese restaurants.
The Hes' struggle to regain custody of their daughter has draw the attention of other Chinese immigrants as well as the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. Two embassy representatives attended the trial Monday as observers and others have shown up for pretrial hearings. "It is our duty to protect our citizens' rights," said Tang Guanghui, second secretary of the embassy. Jinliang Cai of the Greater Memphis United Chinese Association said a decision on the custody dispute is overdue. "We want the judge to respect the rights of the biological parents," Cai said. "It's not just about Chinese. It's about whether parents, willing and able, can raise their own children in their culture." Since He is no longer a student, he and his wife have no legal standing to remain in the United States. Because of the custody fight, the immigration court has delayed ruling on whether they should be deported. The Hes say they plan to return to China if they regain custody of their daughter. They have had two other children, a son and a second daughter, since Anna Mae's birth.