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City Reporter



Battling For Their Baby

Couple wants child returned after giving her up.

By Janel Davis

Shaoqiang He knows that he may lose his daughter. By doing what he thought was best for little Anna Mae, he may never see her again. He can only wait until it is determined whether she will live with her biological parents, whose one-room apartment overflows with her photos, or remain with the family who wants to adopt her. He doesn't like waiting, but he's used to it now.

Like many before them, the Hes are immigrants who came to America hoping to experience the things that make this country so desirable. Shaoqiang -- also known as Jack -- was already a college professor in his homeland of China but came to the United States for graduate studies, first at Arizona State University then at the University of Memphis for a doctorate in economics.

"In China I supported political reform, and I thought the system in the U.S.A., although not perfect, was a very good system, even a model system, so I came here," says He.

He's first experience with the "not perfect" part of the American system came in 1998 when he was accused of assault by a university student. After four years of legal proceedings, the charges were dismissed in December 2001, but the case will be retried. During that time, He was stripped of his legal-residency status, dismissed from the U of M, and informed that he could not leave the country until proceedings were complete. His wife, Qin Luo, or "Casey," became pregnant with their first child, Anna Mae, in 1998. After an assault in 1998, Casey was admitted to the hospital. Anna Mae was born in January 1999 with health problems that were too expensive for the Hes to manage.

A church organization referred them to Jerry and Louise Baker, who agreed to raise Anna Mae until the Hes could properly care for their daughter. As the Hes' situation improved, they sought Anna Mae's return, and that's when He says things turned sour. The Bakers refused to return Anna Mae, instead citing their abandonment and refusal to pay legal fees. At their request, He has taken and passed a paternity test and has also proven his financial stability by acquiring a job as a food-service company manager. He has since been demoted to part-time status as a result of the ongoing litigation. Mrs. He is no longer employed after losing her job as a waitress.

The case has been moved to Chancery Court, where the Bakers are filing for permanent custody of Anna Mae. Chancellor D.J. Alissandratos ordered a gag order on all parties last Thursday.

In addition to being separated from Anna Mae, the Hes have also sent their 15-month-old son to China to live with relatives for the duration of the trials.

"I want my baby back," sobbed Mrs. He. "They took her and I want her back."

The Hes' attorney, Dennis Sossaman, says cases of this type are difficult. "Custody is always temporary and reviewable at any time. A second party can always file for custody," says Sossaman.

As for the Bakers, they are not talking. In a call to their home, Mrs. Baker refused to comment, citing the advice of their lawyer. Their attorney, Larry Parrish, says his clients are disappointed that the Hes have chosen to publicize the details of the case.

"Because this is an adoption case, there are things that cannot be publicized," says Parrish. "The court has expressed that the trial not be 'tried in the newspapers.' It is difficult for my clients to sit mute while the Hes share their version of the story. During the trial period, the court will have the opportunity to hear both sides."

Currently, lawyers say the trial is awaiting rulings on motions filed by the Bakers requesting legal and professional fees to be paid based on He's last deposition. Anna Mae is now a ward of the court and resides with the Bakers. Sossaman anticipates the final hearing to take place in March.

"No one can change the fact that Anna Mae is our daughter," says He. "My wife says she will carry a sign and travel around the country to any organization that can help us. 'My daughter is more important than my life,' she says."

Three weeks ago Anna Mae He celebrated her third birthday. The Hes have not seen their daughter since her second birthday. They have solicited help from several organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union. Various individuals have volunteered to assist the Hes financially and legally. They return to court on Valentine's Day.

A TIGER By the Mail

Parents organize to save funding for gifted students.

By Mary Cashiola

Last December, some Tennessee parents launched a grassroots effort to save gifted education funding. But as they talk to other parents from across the state, they're the ones getting an education.

Born out of a parent-run Web site on gifted education, the Tennessee Initiative for Gifted Education Reform (TIGER) was officially organized after it appeared that gifted education in Tennessee was headed for the chopping block. Since then, the group has mobilized parents of gifted students across the state to write letters and send e-mails to state legislators.

"One of the things we're finding out, since we're a statewide organization, is that every district handles gifted education differently," says Jeff Carlile, a TIGER board member.

By state law, gifted education is part of special education; both groups fall at opposite ends of a spectrum wherein the normal classroom setting does not meet their educational needs. But, late last year, a bill was introduced in the state legislature that would make the state board of education reduce the number of students qualifying for special education. While that bill did not specifically target gifted education, TIGER saw a threat.

Then on January 31st, the Maddox-Herron bill was introduced. This proposes removing "intellectually gifted" from state law's disability distinction -- thus taking them out of the protective veil of special education --and instead requires the state board of education to develop a plan for educating gifted students in their regular classrooms.

"The first bill was a little unclear as to how the threat would identify itself," says Mike Arcamuzi, another local TIGER board member. "Now, being able to target specific legislation, we're getting a much better response."

During a meeting with about 80 Shelby County families last week at White Station Middle School, the group discussed both bills and their impact on gifted children.

A cause that's sometimes seen as elitist, gifted education helps those students who work above grade level to succeed as well as reach their full potential. But, because it's not remedial, it's often a prime candidate for cuts when money gets tight.

"Having them sit in class can lead to behavioral problems and underachieving," says Michael Swanson, the president and founder of TIGER. "They already know what's being taught, so they're wasting their time in class. As a parent, it's hard to send a child to school when you know their wasting their time."

Melissa Johnson is a parent of children enrolled in Shelby County schools. She was also one of 200-plus parents at a TIGER meeting held at the Marian Hale Community Center in January.

"Let's say you have a child who might one day discover the cure for cancer. But what if he gets bored and turned off in school because he doesn't have the stimulation he needs? They just stop," says Johnson.

She knows firsthand about the lack of funding for gifted education. Last year, when Shelby County cut the programs for kindergarten through third grade, her son was affected.

"When he was in second grade, they still had the program and he loved it," she says of her son, now in the fourth grade. "But when he was in third grade, he had nothing. He would say, 'Mom, I know how to do that. I don't need to review.' He was bored."

She says having him back in the program has made a tremendous difference.

Both Johnson and Swanson aren't sure they can overcome their problem with the letter, e-mail, and personal-visit campaign they're waging. Still, they say, it's worth a try.

"It is the only recourse we have and if I haven't done everything I can do, then I've let my child down," says Johnson.

The county schools have not taken a position on the state bill, but the city board of education voted unanimously on a resolution in early January that opposed any bill that would remove the intellectually gifted from the special-education distinction.

"One thing I've learned is that Memphis City Schools has one of the best gifted-education programs in the state," says Arcamuzi. "I have five kids. Three are in the gifted program, and I have one in kindergarten and one in preschool. Hopefully the other two will be able to follow suit."


State agency hires girlfriend of governor's son.

By John Branston

The Tennessee Department of Tourist Development has hired the girlfriend of Governor Don Sundquist's son, Donald "Deke" Sundquist Jr., as director of marketing.

Joan Williams began work in February at a salary of $42,800, says tourism commissioner John Wade. She replaced Ellen Thornton, who took another job outside of state government.

Williams had been working for the state with the film and tape commission, Wade says. Asked if he had hired Williams because of her connections to the governor, Wade says, "Of course."

"This is a political environment and I always try to accommodate the wishes of personnel and staff," he says.

He says the marketing director's position already existed and that Williams "is going to be an asset."

Tourism has come in for some controversial cuts as Sundquist tries to balance the state budget. The governor closed 14 state parks completely or partially and cut $1 million from the Tourist Development budget last year.

Sundquist is in his final year as governor, having served almost two terms.

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