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Blood versus love in US custody battles: Kimberly Mays divorces parents: Courts must decide whether the rights of biological parents should come before the happiness of their children. David Usborne reports

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'THE DEFINITION of a dad to me is somebody that loves me, somebody who's been there for me. Biology doesn't make a family,' explains Kimberly Mays, a 14-year-old Florida girl who tomorrow will go to court to do what the infant Jessica DeBoer in Michigan cannot: say no to blood parents seeking her affections.

Kimberly, like Jessica, was separated from her genetic mother and father almost directly after her birth. The legal and moral dilemmas involved in her attempt now to keep them away echo those in the Jessica affair. The origins of her situation, however, are different. She was not given away, but switched accidentally in the maternity ward for the baby of another couple.

The result of the 1978 mix-up, which the hospital concerned never explained, was that Kimberly went home with Robert Mays and his wife, who has since died of cancer, when she should have been with Ernest and Regina Twigg.

The Twiggs, in the meantime, took home the Mays' daughter and brought her up thinking she was their own. The error did not come to light until five years ago, when the girl who had become a Twigg, Arlena, was treated for a heart ailment from which she later died. Blood tests revealed that Arlena was not, in fact, the Twiggs' daughter. They reacted by going to the courts to seek custody of Kimberly.

Since then, Mr Mays and the Twiggs have been locked in legal battle. In 1989, a settlement was reached, giving the Twiggs visiting rights. After a few visits, Mr Mays severed the arrangement on the grounds that it was causing Kimberly too much emotional stress. Now, Kimberly is going to a judge in Sarasota, on Florida's west coast, to demand that she need never see the Twiggs again. Her action would amount to 'divorcing' her blood parents, in a virtual replay of last year's successful effort by a young boy, Gregory K, to divorce his parents after they left him in care, then tried to reclaim him. Kimberly's lawyer, George Russ, represented Gregory, and went on to adopt him himself.

'If the right to privacy and the pursuit of happiness have any meaning for children at all, it must be in the context of having a say in who your parents are,' said Mr Russ. Kimberly says she continues to consider Robert Mays, a roofing contractor, as her father, and wants nothing of the Twiggs. 'I want my life back, the way it was before the Twiggs got involved,' she said.

If Kimberly wins her case, a conflicting precedent would be set to that now being established in the DeBoer-Schmidt affair, and it would be arrived at, apparently, only because of the difference in ages of the offspring involved.

The fundamental question of what constitutes a parent in the US, nature or nurture, would remain as confused as ever.

(Photograph omitted)