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US asks who has right to choose: Courtroom battles over custody of children highlight country's confusion

AS THE legal and emotional clamour surrounding the 'Baby Jessica' affair began to fade yesterday, attention switched to another case which only serves to underline the confusion surrounding the rights of parents and children in America.

Lawyers representing 14-year-old Kimberly Mays spent a second day seeking to persuade a court that she should have the right to sever her ties with her biological parents and remain with her adoptive father.

The two cases go to the heart of the highly emotive question of whose rights are considered paramount in US law: those of the natural parents, the adoptive parents or the child. On Monday, a sobbing Jessica DeBoer, aged 2 1/2 , was whisked away from the Michigan couple with whom she had lived almost all her life to be restored to her 'birth parents' by order of the courts. Her mother had orginally agreed to her adoption and waived her parental rights, but later changed her mind.

Meanwhile, Kimberly was making it clear to a circuit court judge in Florida that, unlike Jessica, she expected her wishes as a child to prevail. In a brief appearance on the stand, she coolly announced she was 'positively sure' she never wanted to see her biological parents again.

Her dilemma bears some similarities to that of the highly publicised legal battle of Gregory K, the 12-year- old boy who last year persuaded the courts to let him 'divorce' his parents after they left him in care, and be adopted by his lawyer. Yesterday, Gregory - whose lawyer, George Russ, is representing Kimberly - was at the proceedings at Kimberly's request, giving television interviews with all the gruff-voiced authority of a seasoned litigator.

But her case is more complicated, the product of extraordinary circumstances which have already been the basis of a television film. Shortly after birth, Kimberly was mistakenly switched in hospital with another baby girl and was handed to Robert and Barbara Mays. Mrs Mays died some years ago. Kimberly's blood parents, Ernest and Regina Twigg, took home the Mays' child, Arlena. The mix-up was not revealed until Arlena died of a heart defect in 1988, when Kimberly was nine.

The court is being asked to consider whether the Twiggs should be allowed to visit Kimberly. Previous visiting rights were cancelled by Mr Mays, who says meetings with the Twiggs left Kimberly depressed and were affecting her school work.

Yesterday, the issue at the centre of the case came to the fore: a psychologist hired by the Twiggs told the court that he felt Kimberly was too immature to be able to make a decision. But the age at which a child can determine hos or her fate remains a question that America's myriad state and federal laws has yet to clarify. Kimberly, a adult-looking bespectacled girl, would argue that a 14-year-old is old enough to be allowed to say 'no'.

(Photographs omitted)