For more than a decade, Daniel Etlin has been caught in a custody war between his divorced parents. On Friday, carrying a small black briefcase and bringing a hired attorney, Daniel, 12, decided to plead his own case, asking a Fairfax County court to let him "divorce" his father.

In a case that reflects growing legal rights for children in divorces, Daniel looked on as Bruce Fein, a noted conservative legal commentator, argued that a child has a constitutional right to be heard independently of his mother, his father and their attorneys.

After a brief hearing, Judge F. Bruce Bach approved Daniel's request, permitting him to argue in court at a later date that he be allowed to live permanently with his mother. Daniel entered a foster home over the weekend rather than go to the Falls Church home of his father, Vladimir Etlin.

The hearing was the latest chapter in the bitter custody case of Etlin v. Etlin, which has stretched over a decade and into dozens of legal battles in state and federal courts.

Daniel Etlin was about 1 when his parents, Michelle Etlin, 43, and Vladimir Etlin, 53, began divorce proceedings. In a saga similar to the bitterly fought custody battle between Elizabeth Morgan and Eric Foretich, Daniel was taken into hiding in South Africa and Portland, Ore., by his mother, who said she took him away to give him a life without court battles.

One day on his way to school, Daniel was taken from the streets of Oregon by his father, who said it was his right to return him to Virginia, according to court records.

His mother, who initially had custody, served two months of a 12-month jail sentence in Fairfax for leaving the area with him. Bach turned custody over to Daniel's father, with whom Daniel has lived since 1987.

"You have two scorpions in a bottle fighting each other," Fein said. "Most of the evidence concerns one parent's unflattering adjectives describing the other's parental ability. Judges are left with a very unsatisfactory record to determine what is the best interest of the child."

Fein, a Federal Communications Commission general counsel during the Reagan administration, said Daniel hired him about eight months ago. "The reason was he felt very strongly he wanted his own voice and is very unsatisfied with the current custody arrangement," which grants Michelle Etlin visitation rights during weekends and the month of July, Fein said.

The financial arrangements of their agreement have been kept secret. "We worked it out. He is retaining me," Fein said. "I'm not a court-appointed attorney. I have an arrangement with him."

Bach, who initially told Fein that his motion would be denied because the state would not pay for a child's attorney in a divorce case, granted the motion after Fein assured the judge he had been retained.

Experts across the country say that it is rare for children to seek outside counsel to represent them in court.

However, they say courts increasingly are paying attention to children, and in a few states, such as Wisconsin and New Hampshire, the state routinely appoints independent counsel to represent children. Texas has a law that allows the child to select a parent with court approval. Ohio allows children at least 12 years of age to choose the parent they will live with unless the court finds the parent to be unfit.

Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law, said, "It's absolutely critical for courts to listen to children, and one way to effect that is to provide counsel to children. It's absolutely essential for children to have a voice."

After the hearing, Daniel listed the reasons he wanted to divorce his father.

"My father doesn't treat me well," he said. "I just don't feel right there. I want to get away from my father. My grades have dropped."

In an affidavit, Daniel said he feared returning to his father's house after his July visit with his mother because he wasn't sure how his father would react to his having an attorney. In the affidavit, Daniel said that his father criticizes him and calls his mother names.

"One time, he was going into this big lecture about how awful my mother was and I couldn't take it any more . . . . I said he was a liar so he smacked me hard across my face and said I wasn't allowed to talk back to him."

Vladimir Etlin denied yesterday that he was abusive and said Daniel was repeating accusations made by his mother, who he said has a vendetta against him. "She brainwashed him so badly that he repeats like a parrot whatever she told him to say," said Etlin, who met his ex-wife on a blind date after he had emigrated from the Soviet Union.

Etlin said he has hit Daniel "maybe once . . . probably I spanked him, and children deserve probably to be spanked once in a while. He is not an exception. In 3 1/2 years, just once. For this will you believe they have grounds to leave you and go to a foster home?"

Michelle Etlin -- who was barred from the courtroom Friday when she tried to seek an order granting her renewed custody -- denied brainwashing her son, saying that Daniel was upset and did not want to go to his father's house on Aug. 1, as scheduled.

Michelle Etlin, founder of Women Opposed to a Misogynist System, said she believes Daniel should have the same rights as adults to choose where they want to live. "A doctor pointed to an adult and told Danny {that the adult} has the right to decide where he wants to live but you don't," Michelle Etlin said. "Danny said that's wrong."