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VOL. 122 | NO. 88 | Monday, May 14, 2007

Anna Mae He Act Making Way Through General Assembly

By Amy O. Williams

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FOSTER SISTERS: Seven-year-old Aimee Baker, left, and her foster sister, 8-year-old Anna Mae He, pose for a photo that was shown on "Good Morning America" and in USA Today in February. -- Photo Courtesy Of Jerry Baker

The Anna Mae He Act was approved Wednesday by the Tennessee House Children and Family Affairs Committee and now is moving through the Senate.

The current House bill aims to address cases such as the Anna Mae He case by more clearly defining terms such as "willfully failed to support" and "willfully failed to visit." Those terms were at the core of findings by both the Tennessee Supreme Court in January and that of Robert L. Childers, judge in Division 9 of the Circuit Court of Tennessee for the 30th Judicial District, in his initial finding in May 2004.

Childers' ruling, though upheld by an appeals court in 2005, was later reversed by the state Supreme Court in January. The Supreme Court's ruling stated that then 8-year-old Anna Mae He be returned from the custody of Jerry and Louise Baker to her birth parents, Shaio-Qiang (Jack) He and Qin (Casey) Luo He.

Anna Mae has been the subject of a custody battle between her birth parents and her foster parents, the Bakers. The Bakers have claimed the Hes abandoned their rights to Anna Mae when they signed a temporary custody order.

Making it clear

The bill's sponsor, Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, said he plans to sponsor more legislation in the 2008 session that would further clarify the laws on private adoptions.

Hardaway said he has closely followed the case since it started making headlines in 2000.

"To me, it is not simply a case of parental rights or even a case of children's rights, but it is about constitutional rights," Hardaway said. "The one thing that really upset me was the fact that these parents (the Hes) were tricked."

The lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate is Rep. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis.

The language of the bill clarifies that "a parent who attempts to support or visit a child has not willfully abandoned the child for the purpose of termination of parental rights in either foster care or adoption situations," according to the state legislature's Web site, www.legislature.state.tn.us.

Along with providing a clearer definition for terminology used in the Tennessee code, the bill also addresses the issue of the language barrier Hardaway said caused the case to go "haywire" initially.

"You've got someone in the court that is incapable of getting the full understanding or comprehension because they don't understand the language," he said.

Hardaway said the Hes did not know enough about what was going on to make informed decisions with regard to their daughter's custody. Their cultural differences, Chinese versus American, led them into a loaded trap, Hardaway said.

"I just don't want that situation to arise again," he said. "These people were taken advantage of. I don't think there is anything more important when we are talking about social order than the basic family unit. And that unit is made up of parental rights and children's rights."

Don't 'muddy the waters'

Though the bill was approved by the Children and Family Affairs Committee, at least one committee member was not completely supportive of the bill in its current form.

The Supreme Court's decision should be accepted, and legislation might only complicate things, said Rep. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, in an e-mail to The Daily News.

"The situation that Anna Mae He has undergone is truly tragic," wrote Kelsey, a committee member who is also an attorney with Martin, Tate, Morrow & Marston PC. "The Supreme Court has spoken clearly in favor of the Hes and we should respect their judgment as law. There is no need for the legislature to muddy the waters further with an ambiguous law."

Hardaway said he believes the law ultimately will pass the General Assembly as it appears in its current form.

A gag order issued Wednesday by Judge Curtis Person of the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County prevented any attorneys or parties currently involved with the case from speaking about the Anna Mae He Act.

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