MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
I'm Alex Chadwick.
You're a parent and you are so poor and desperate, you give up your newborn baby to foster care. Eight years later you get her back, but only after a long fight. That's what happened to Jack and Casey He, Chinese immigrants in Tennessee. They now want to return to China and take their eight-year-old daughter with them and away from Jerry and Louise Baker; that's the couple who've raised her since she was three weeks old.
From member station WPLN in Nashville, Blake Farmer prepared this report.
BLAKE FARMER: In Bob Tuke's(ph) Nashville Law Office, the seasoned adoption attorney shakes his head as he considers the recent ruling. It's a heavy blow for a guy who's spent much of his career advocating for children.
Mr. BOB TUKE (Lawyer): Once again, a child's interests are being ignored. And the judicial system has utterly failed that child.
FARMER: Tuke consulted with lawyers representing the Baker family as they tried to secure permanent custody for eight-year-old Anna Mae He. In 1999, Jack and Casey He, a recently immigrated Chinese couple, fell on hard times. Feeling they needed time to get back on their feet, the couple sought out foster care for their three-week-old daughter. Anna May went to stay with the Baker family on what both parties agreed was a temporary basis.
Difficulties over visitation arrangements started the families on a seven year journey through a maze of courts. Finally, the Tennessee High Court unanimously ruled Tuesday to send Anna Mae back to her biological parents. By all accounts, she barely knows them. Tuke says the case represents an all too common emphasis on the parents' rights and a disregard for the child's.
Mr. TUKE: What the court sometimes forgets is that child has constitutional rights as well.
Mr. DAVID SIEGEL (Attorney): If you're protecting the constitutional rights of the biological parents, it's my position that you're also protecting the rights of the child.
FARMER: Attorney David Siegel and Tuke have been seated across the courtroom from each other many times in the last few years. Siegel has represented the He family pro bono since 2002.
Mr. SIEGEL: Whoever said that the child's rights were inconsistent with the natural parents' rights?
FARMER: Tuke, on the other hand, says if a ruling must err one way or the other, the child should be considered first, an opinion he's written into policy for the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. Tuke says U.S. courts are reluctantly moving toward a child-first model, though the Anna Mae He case is an exception. The court stated that her bond with the Bakers could not have a bearing on custody rights. Jack He says he doesn't understand everything about the American judicial system, but says a child shouldn't be kept from good parents.
Mr. JACK HE (Anna Mae's Parent): A child can be taken away from parents only on the condition that the parents are harmful, dangerous. They should not have been keeping other's child to begin with.
FARMER: Parties on both sides are concerned that Anna Mae's adjustments to living with her Chinese family will be difficult at best. They may look similar, but Anna Mae isn't culturally Chinese. The Hes haven't spoken to their daughter in more than five years. Their attorney says that's the court's fault.
Mr. SIEGEL: Why didn't the system anticipate the possibility that the Hes just might win this case and allow for some kind of contact?
FARMER: The He family is back in Memphis awaiting another hearing to determine exactly how the transfer will occur. Jack He says he'll try to make it as smooth as possible, recognizing that his daughter considers the Baker family her own. But Jack He says the efforts could get thorny, considering the Bakers' statements to the media.
Mr. HE: What the Bakers said was that they rescued an unwanted little Chinese girl and then prevented her from returning to a life of poverty in China. Even after the child has returned to us, we will never say anything negative about the Bakers.
FARMER: Jack He says his family will eventually return to China. The Bakers declined to comment for this story. Their family could take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. But attorneys believe there are very little grounds for appeal.
For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.