An Endless, Expensive Family Fued

GAIL COLLINS

August 04, 1993|By GAIL COLLINS

SARASOTA, FLA. — Sarasota, Fla.--A few days after she was born, Kimberly Mays was switched with another baby in the hospital nursery. Two sets of parents went home with the wrong infant.

One of the many unfortunate results of that 14-year-old incident is that everyone involved has received multimillion-dollar settlements from the hospital.

They therefore can afford to keep suing each other till the cows come home.

''This case has been in court for five long years!'' cried one of Kimberly's three attorneys Monday. Yeah, and it is good for another four-year run before the kid turns 18.

The latest proceedings involve Kimberly's much-publicized desire to ''divorce'' her biological parents, Ernest and Regina Twigg. The Twiggs, who now are supposed to have visitation rights, are suing for more access to Kimberly. They're represented by two lawyers of their own, and of course everyone is fielding a battery of psychiatrists.

''Are you sure you don't want to see them again?'' the Twiggs' attorney asked Kimberly Monday.

''I am positively sure,'' she shot back fiercely.

Kimberly was wearing a navy dress with shoulder pads and black high heels -- a grown-up outfit for a grown-up-acting 14-year-old.

Her composure faltered only when Regina Twigg pointed out once again that she is actually their daughter Arlena Twigg, and that ''Kimberly Michelle Mays is dead and lies in a cemetery in Indiana.''

Well, we sure do have some interesting legal issues here. What rights do biological parents have when they've been out of their child's life for years through no fault of their own? What rights do children have to legally cut off natural parents who haven't abused or mistreated them?

After all, if every 14-year-old girl who thought her mother was a witch had the right to sue, the court system would implode from overwork.

Kimberly, whose interests are allegedly uppermost in the minds of all concerned, has had a rough time of it. Barbara Mays, the woman she regards as her mother, died when she was only 2. The stepmother and stepsister she knew throughout her childhood exited via divorce court.

Now Kimberly lives with Stepmother 2, gets taunted at school for being the Switched-at-Birth-Kid, and fends off Regina Twigg, the biological mother from hell.

Regina Twigg is everybody's favorite villain in this case.

''She sounded like a screech owl on Barbara Walters,'' sniped a courthouse worker Monday.

Regina has had a hard road to hoe herself. An orphan, she married young and had eight children. Arlena, the girl she thought was her youngest daughter, had a genetic heart defect and died when she was 9 -- just weeks after medical tests determined she wasn't actually the Twiggs' child. Even though she has a college degree, Regina wound up mowing lawns, baby sitting and doing drudge work at a plastics factory to help support the family.

''My husband's salary was not adequate to meet our financial expectations,'' she testified tensely.

Now, of course, the Twiggs live in a 4,600-square-foot house on a five-acre mini-ranch with swimming pool, thanks to the $7 million settlement from the hospital. But none of that seems to comfort Regina Twigg, who walks around in a cloud of grievances.

There was a time in 1990 when it appeared that the adults had worked things out. The Twiggs, who originally wanted custody of Kimberly, agreed she should stay with her father. Robert Mays agreed she should visit her biological family.

A TV movie, ''Switched at Birth,'' celebrated this happy ending. Unfortunately, by the time it aired in April 1991, the peace accord was long since dissolved.

Kimberly's visits with the Twiggs went well, according to all parties. ''Yeah, they were fun,'' the girl muttered reluctantly in a brief appearance on the witness stand Monday.

Then, after four months, Robert Mays pulled the plug, citing his daughter's bad grades in school.

No one on the Mayses' team appears to think this was out of line.

''Bob Mays grounded Kimberly . . . he also grounded her for the Twiggs,'' said Mays' own lawyer Monday. ''He canceled the November visit and said: 'Give me a call in January and we'll see what we can do.' ''

Now this seems pretty high-handed. But Mays -- whose dead wife's parents once sued to get visitation with Kimberly -- clearly had his own ideas about the Twiggs' proper role in their biological daughter's life.

''Bob was looking for a relationship that would be equivalent perhaps to a visitation by an aunt,'' a Kimberly lawyer told the judge.

Regina Twiggs' response to being cut off from her daughter's visits was to act like a maniac.

She helped write a book that fingered Bob Mays as the probable baby swapper. She went on talk shows. She wrote letters attacking Mr. Mays and sent them to Kimberly's neighborhood newspaper. Mr. Mays, who with Kimberly got $6.6 million from the hospital, took a lie detector test that indicated he knew nothing about the swap. The identity of the baby switcher remains a mystery.

Kimberly, torn between Robert Mays and a family she had barely begun to know, turned against the Twiggs vehemently.

Thus the divorce suit, and the lawyers and the psychiatrists and the depositions in which the Twigg family revealed every secret Kimberly confided to them.

She sits in court now, looking like a grown-up, surrounded by legal briefs. Occasionally she touches her hair self-consciously like a little girl.

Gail Collins is a columnist for Newsday.

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