By Richard Jerome
September 06, 1999 12:00 PM

A decade ago, Kimberly Mays was the object of national sympathy, a blonde, bespectacled innocent swept up in a sensational domestic horror story. It was 1989, and Kimberly was just 10 when genetic tests revealed that she had been switched with another baby shortly after her birth at Hardee Memorial Hospital in Wauchula, Fla. Her biological parents, Ernest and Regina Twigg, had brought home a girl who died at age 9 of a congenital heart defect and who was really the child of Robert Mays, the widower Kimberly had come to know as her father. The Twiggs fought tenaciously to gain custody of Kimberly, but she wanted no part of them. In August 1993 she won a suit to sever ties with the Twiggs, a well-publicized victory that left her relieved but jaded. “I’m not going to have any kids,” she told reporters. “I don’t want them to go through what I went through.”

Despite that promise, Kimberly not only became a mother (her son Deven is now 2 years old) but she has found herself at the heart of a second bitter custody battle. Only this time, Kimberly has been cast as the villain. In April, following a two-month investigation prompted by allegations that she had neglected and physically abused her child, the Florida Department of Children and Families removed Deven from the Orlando home that Kimberly then shared with her husband, Jeremy Weeks, 21, and placed him in foster care. Lodging the complaint was Irisa Twigg Roylance, 30, one of Kimberly’s seven biological siblings, with whom she had become close. A Murdock, Fla., homemaker, Roylance claims to have seen her sister force-feed Deven and slap him hard on the back with an open hand. “That horrified me,” she says, adding that Kimberly would at times “sleep all day and leave him alone in his crib.” On one such occasion, a visiting Roylance says she heard the child’s cries and found him “covered with feces from head to toe.”

Diana Tennis, Kimberly’s attorney, says the state overreacted when it took Deven from her client. “A string of child murders in central Florida in the last six months,” she says, has made the agency skittish about “giving parents the benefit of the doubt.” Calling Roylance unreliable, Tennis does not believe her claims were taken seriously by authorities—except for one instance when Kimberly admittedly spanked Deven after he’d taken off his diaper and made a mess. “As far as I know,” she says, “it’s still legal in the state of Florida to spank your kid.” Tennis asserts that the spanking incident, several missed appointments with DCF caseworkers and Kimberly’s “inability to control her emotions with her child” persuaded authorities to remove Deven.

Kimberly’s troubles multiplied on June 1, when her husband, a security guard, was granted a temporary injunction against her “for protection against domestic violence.” The ruling requires her to remain at least 500 feet from Weeks, who, according to court papers, claims he has been yelled at, slapped, hit and menaced with a knife. She has “made lots of threats and is constantly out of control,” Weeks (who was advised by his lawyer not to be interviewed) said in legal papers.

“I would deny those allegations flatly,” Tennis declares, adding that Weeks’s injunction is a major obstacle to any reconciliation between the couple, as well as to Deven’s return. “We desperately need to have a sit-down, have-it-out session.” Kimberly, who has completed court-ordered anger-management and parenting classes (Weeks was also ordered to take a parenting course), would not be interviewed for this story. But Tennis has witnessed several of her client’s twice-monthly visits with Deven. “She’s very tender with him,” she says. “He runs to her and jumps in her arms.”

Kimberly has known little peace since her true identity was discovered. In 1994, the year after winning her case over the Twiggs, she quarreled with Robert Mays and moved into a youth shelter. At Mays’s suggestion, remarkably, she then went to live with the Twiggs. Having spent years torn between the two families, “she was boiling over with all this pain,” recalls Regina Twigg, now divorced from Ernest and again estranged from their biological daughter. Still, she says it seemed Kimberly “thought if she got married and had a baby that her life would come together.”

That opportunity presented itself in 1996, at a time when Kimberly had run away from the Twiggs and returned to live with Mays in North Carolina. She was working as a supermarket cashier when Jeremy Weeks passed through her checkout line. Hesitant at first, she began dating him, and on Feb. 8, 1997, with Kimberly three months pregnant, they wed. “It seemed like they really did care about each other,” says Roylance, who served as matron of honor and remained close to her sister until earlier this year, when she began to criticize the way Kimberly was raising her son. “I hope she gets the help she needs, and I hope someday she’ll let me back into her life.”

Kimberly’s domestic future remains murky. “She’s in love with her husband, loves her baby and wants them to be a family,” attorney Tennis says. Yvonne Vassel of DCF reports that Kimberly “is making excellent progress” and is hopeful that Deven will rejoin his mother or father, if not both. “We don’t want to keep this child,” she says. “We want this child to return home.”

Richard Jerome

Fannie Weinstein in Orlando