By Christine Burke Eskwitt
David Goldman shares a local perspective on life after the return of his abducted son
David Goldman grew up along the Jersey Shore and continues to live in Tinton Falls today. His five-year battle to bring his son Sean back home from Brazil following parental abduction by Sean’s mother was an incredible story that the national and international media followed in great detail. Now, David tells us about his close connection to the Jersey Shore and brings us up to date on how everyone is faring today.
David Goldman and his Brazilian wife, Bruna Bianchi, led what appeared to be a happy life in Tinton Falls. But in June of 2004, Bianchi took their four-year-old son Sean to Brazil for what she said would be a two-week vacation. Once there, she informed Goldman that she was staying in Brazil – and keeping Sean, setting in motion an international controversy that would reach the highest levels of the U.S. and Brazilian governments. It would be almost five years before David could bring Sean home again.
David and Sean’s story is one of deep sadness, unfathomable elements, threats, legal twists and turns, great love, and finally, triumph and joy. David relentlessly rallied support behind the scenes from high level New Jersey and U.S. government officials, national media organizations, and dedicated grassroots volunteers from throughout our local community.
Father and son were finally reunited in December 2009 on Christmas Eve. David has just published a new memoir about the challenges he faces as he rebuilds his relationship with his son and the advocacy work he is doing on behalf of other children in similar circumstances. Sean, at eleven years old, is enjoying life along the Jersey Shore, secure in the father’s love that ultimately brought him home.
LIM: Your story made national headlines five years after your son was abducted by his mother in 2004. What’s it like to be an ordinary guy from Jersey thrust into extraordinary circumstances?
DG: Well, I still am an ordinary guy but something like this comes along and it makes you very vulnerable. For four and a half years I was pretty much a one man show with my attorneys and the support of my friends and family. It comes to a point though when you have to accept the fact that you are vulnerable. You need help. It’s a time of desperation.Whatever I needed to do, or could do, to get help for Sean, that’s what I had to do. It wasn’t very uncomfortable because I was on a mission and I had nothing to hide. My one objective was to save my son so I never worried that I had to say something or do something outside of myself. There is no playbook that tells you what to do when your child has been abducted, but you do what your heart tells you and that’s to do whatever you can to bring your child home and be reunited.
LIM: You grew up here at the Jersey Shore. What was that like?
DG: I grew up in Ocean Township and I can still hear my mom yelling out my name when it was dinner time. We’d all be playing baseball in someone’s yard. If you hit the ball across the street it was a home run.You knew your boundaries. I have vivid memories of summertime. When I was a real little boy we were members of the Breakwater Beach Club. That’s where I first learned how to swim and snorkel along the jetties. You’d see striped bass and black fish and try to spear one and come back with your trophy. I really enjoyed it. Who ever thought about the possibility of abduction or crime? I grew up here in the 1970s and 1980s. There were no computers, no distractions. We were neighborhood kids, playing in the woods, building forts and going to the beach. When I got older my friends and I would go to Loch Arbour on our mopeds.We’d get chocolate chip mint ice cream with sugar cones. It was a wonderful experience to grow up here.
When I was older, I was working as a lifeguard at Seven President’s Park in Long Branch and got pulled in as an extra on a photo shoot with the beautiful model Kathy Ireland, who is a lovely person, for a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. It was just lucky timing that I was there but it all came together and launched my modeling career, which became a source of income for me as well as gave me the opportunity to travel andmeet wonderful people. It was through modeling that I met my future wife.
Some of my favorite Jersey Shore destinations today are still the same as when I was a kid. I’m happy on any beach.We try not to miss the summer concert series at Sandy Hook. I have a boat in the Highlands, so we love to go up and down the coast or crabbing on the Navesink. Sean enjoys Jenkinson’s in Point Pleasant and McLoone’s in Long Branch on the Promenade.
LIM: Sean’s been home for two years. Are you giving him the same childhood you had?
DG: I’m doing my best. We still live in Tinton Falls in the same house where we’ve always lived. Sean still sleeps in the same bedroom, but now it’s decorated with sports stuff instead of Scooby-Doo. But there will always be a piece missing for Sean because he’s growing up without a mom. I’m doing my best to let himexperience the freedom and the happiness and the excitement that life has to offer a child here. I try not to let him get pressured, to just be a ten-year-old boy. My job is to make sure that he can enjoy life to the fullest. Sean will turn 11 on May 25, which by coincidence is International Missing Children’s Day.
LIM: The story of what happened to you and Sean is well documented. Is it true that you really had no idea of what was about to happen when you drove your wife and four-year-old son Sean to the airport on June 16, 2004 for what you thought was a typical visit by your wife back to her family in Brazil?
DG: I had no clue. I used to wonder, did I miss something? I don’t beat myself up about it now though. I thought we had a good marriage. I thought we were happy. But when Bruna got to Brazil, she called – ironically it was Father’s Day – to say she was staying there and keeping Sean with her, and that if I ever wanted to see him again I would have to sign over sole custody to her. I went to court in New Jersey and obtained an order calling for a custody hearing and granting custody to me pending the hearing. According to the laws of Brazil and the United States, Sean should have been returned home to me but the Brazilian court waited a year to respond to the New Jersey court, and then ruled that since so much time had passed, Sean should stay with his mother. In the interim, my wife divorced me and married a Brazilian lawyer from a prominent and politically well-connected family in that country. It would be almost five years before I could bring my son home again.
LIM: To add an even more tragic turn to the story, Bruna later died in childbirth.
DG: Yes, she died in 2008, four years after she had left with Sean, and this battle was going on the whole time. I found out on the Internet. No one notified me. I was dead to them. I hadn’t even known that she had gotten remarried or had divorced me in Brazil.We were married here and lived our whole married lives here and there was never anything filed in our courts. In America, our marriage was still valid. I thought this was finally an opportunity to get Sean back. I once again traveled to Brazil for a court hearing, only to find that Bruna’s husband had filed a petition with the local family court to remove my name from Sean’s birth records and replace it with his own. That would exclude me from ever being my son’s father, and the Brazilian justice system was letting him do this.
LIM: We’ll fast forward a little bit. After extraordinary interventions by everyone from volunteers to New Jersey legislators all the way up to President Barack Obama, Sean came home on Christmas Eve in 2009. How has your relationship developed since then?
DG: It’s remarkable. First, think about it: It could have happened on any other day of the year but Sean came home on Christmas Eve. Something bigger was definitely at work here.
Sean is a sweet, emotional, sensitive boy. He’s caring, very thoughtful and polite. He’s a normal boy. He’s active. He likes to play outside, ride his bike, and play basketball. He loves to fish and be out on the water, play around the river and the ponds. He also likes video games and the computer and Internet. He’s a typical 10- almost 11- year-old boy.
LIM: Sean was old enough to know what was going on though. Does he have any lingering issues?
DG: Kids want to live in the moment. They want to have fun. They are resilient. My parents still live in the same place and are very involved with us. Sean has cousins close to his age. He has lots of friends. His life is filled with activities and school and friends, but I don’t want him to repress his feelings and thoughts either.
LIM: You said that you would not do to Sean’s Brazilian family what they did to you, that you would allow visits with Sean if they exhibited good judgment and behaved as normal grandparents. Has that happened?
DG: Not with their behavior. Unfortunately, his remaining grandparent, Bruna’s mother, continues to take legal action to have Sean returned to Brazil. The latest order plays on the fact that he has a half sibling in Brazil, and how can you separate two uterine children? He knew this girl for one year after she was born. What Sean’s grandmother is doing is very cruel and very sad. I could also have been remarried, with Sean having half siblings here. Sean has only one parent, period.
LIM: There were many high level players involved in helping to bring Sean home. Let’s talk about some of the local and national politicians who took up your cause.
DG: Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey is my superhero. I’m not even his constituent but his wife saw us on Dateline NBC and said to him, you have to do something. Local legislators Senator Jennifer Beck and Senator Joe Kyrillos were both on board. They did what they could in the House to move a couple of resolutions forward calling for Sean’s return. They passed the word up the ladder. Senator Dick Codey, when he was acting Governor, helped. All of these politicians inspired a grassroots effort in New Jersey to bring Sean home. Chris Smith kept it going. He is such a “true to his word” kind of guy. He looked me straight in the eye and he said I’m going to be there when you get on that next plane ride to Brazil. I’m going with you and I’m not giving up. And he was there, and he didn’t give up.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put the full weight of her office behind us. She worked with members of Congress and she brought this issue to the highest levels of the Brazilian government. There were two wars going on and so many things to occupy her time but she made this a top priority. She showed why she’s always been a champion of children. President Barack Obama spoke to his Brazilian counterpart, President Lula, about us. Senator Lautenberg stood up in Congress and said he would not vote to give Brazil $2.75 billion dollars in aid until Sean Goldman gets sent back to his father, and the U.S. Congress introduced H.R. 2702, legislation to suspend Brazil’s Generalized System of Preferences trading benefit. It was great. Democrat or Republican didn’t matter. There was a bipartisan commitment to help me get Sean home. My son could be anyone’s son. I am so grateful to all of these people but also to everyone at the very basic grassroots level in our local communities and across the nation who said a prayer in their church or synagogue, wrote a letter to their legislator, sent us a card or said a kind word. There are still other kids out there who have been abducted by a parent. They need our help and support. They need the same kind of awareness we were fortunate to get.
LIM: Tell us about the journalists who took up your cause, and also the so called “check book journalism” criticism that the case received.
DG: Bill Handleman of the Asbury Park Press, who passed away from cancer about a year ago, was one of the first local reporters to write about us. He spent twenty-six years writing about sports for the Press. He told me great stories about MuhammadAli and all of the horse races he covered.We met when he switched over to writing news. His columns were extremely influential in helping us to bring Sean home and I really appreciate his help. Dateline NBC with Meredith Vieira, of course, the Today Show, Larry King, Dr. Phil – all of the media attention helped us to move our case forward, put people in the spotlight, good or bad. The criticism came when NBC paid for a chartered plane to bring me and Sean home from Brazil. But put yourself in my position. Here I am, bringing Sean home after all these years. If we were on a commercial flight it would have been a zoo – out in public, with journalists and cameras in every seat – or we could take this safe, private airplane. I have never been paid a dime by any media for any interviews or information. I wouldn’t accept it if it were offered. My goal was to be reunited with my son. To achieve that and to get the word out to help other kids as well is payment enough.
LIM: Who else has been on your team?
DG: Patricia Appy, an attorney with Paras, Appy & Reiss in Red Bank, was, and unfortunately still is, my attorney. She’s been great. I say unfortunately only because it’s unfortunate that I still need to have an attorney but claims are still being filed against me in Brazil and I still need to have an attorney to respond to each and every one. They are continuing their efforts at every turn to get Sean back to Brazil. I’ve had to have lawyers both here and in Brazil since 2004. I’ve had some help but I’ve also paid a heck of a lot in legal bills and I still owe a greater amount and that’s still building.
LIM: Can you take Sean out of this country?
DG: I can, but now that they are filing more claims in Brazil and some judges have made awful rulings on my case as well as on other abducted children who are trapped, I would be very reluctant to do so. Even in this country I wouldn’t put it past them to snatch Sean and bring him back to Brazil, then try to hide behind their laws.
LIM: What do you do for a living?
DG: I make my income by running a charter boat service with my partners. We have five boats. It’s called Shore Catch Guide Service. I’m a licensed U.S.C.G. Master Captain, and I’ve fished from local New Jersey waters to the tropical islands of Hawaii, and South and Central America. My dad, Barry, operated the Ol’ Salty II since I was a boy. I guess I am following in his footsteps. I also still do some photography work in New York once in a while.
We have a web site for the charter service. It’s www.shorecatch.com, just as we have www.bringseanhome.org for the Bring Sean Home Foundation. Web sites are amazing. It was really the power of the Internet that spread our story, even in Brazil and around the world, and kept the pressure on to bring Sean home.
LIM: Many people are unaware of the extent of parental abduction in the U.S. You have unwillingly become the poster dad for this painful issue.
DG: Yes, unwillingly is right. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s annual report, 800,000 children are reported missing every year in the U.S. Of that number, an estimated 200,000 children are abducted by family members and taken to another country against their will. Brazil, Mexico, Japan and other countries around the world, where nationals are allowed to live with impunity, are frequent destinations.
The number of international abductions of American children is growing out of control, increasing by 60 percent in just the last three years. Most countries have similar laws to ours, where a non-custodial parent can’t take a child over a state line never mind into another country without written permission from the custodial parent, but if it’s a national who takes his or her child into a country like Brazil, they are commonly treated with impunity. The details of Sean’s abduction evolved around application of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton treated the case as a diplomatic issue of Brazil’s obligations under the Hague Convention. But it’s still always personal. This is your child. You know where he is. You know who he’s with. We can’t stand by while these children are spirited away. Congressman Smith’s legislation, H.R. 3240 The International ChildAbduction Prevention Act, once made into law will change forever the way international abductions are treated, worldwide.
LIM: What is the Bring Sean Home Foundation?
DG: This started as a group of my friends and supporters initially. Today the Foundation, which is based in Lincroft, offers support to other parents and families whose child has been abducted. It’s still run by a handful of people who are unpaid volunteers, just giving of their time and resources to a cause they care about deeply, and trying to help others who are in a situation like mine. The Bring Sean Home Foundation shows the impact that an individual can have. It was thanks to the work of tens of thousands of supporters who spent countless hours writing, phoning and emailing elected officials, government administrators, journalists, judges, lawyers, anyone who might help or spread the word of the injustice done to us that we were able to bring Sean home. The Bring Sean Home Foundation offers support groups, shared resources, highlights their children on its web site, works on legislation, champions left behind parents, and gets letters to their legislators, anything that can be done. I speak to a lot of parents and try to coach them and give them hope.
LIM: Tell us about the memoir you have written. (“A Father’s Love: One Man’s Unrelenting Battle to Bring his Abducted Son Home” was published in May 2011.)
DG: I started to write the book last summer but it has really written itself. ‘A Father’s Love’ is another way to bring attention to this issue, and to acknowledge everyone who helped me to bring Sean home. It’s the first time I’ve been able to tell the full story and share how we are all doing today. I am on a book tour and speaking locally as well as across the nation. It’smy way of giving back to everyone who gave their support to us and, with the rapidly growing number of parental abductions taking place, it is more important now than ever that this story be told.
Sean selected the photo that’s on the front of the book. One day we were going through some old photos and he said, “Hey Dad, how about this one for the cover?”
LIM: Is life back to normal, or do you have a different normal?
DG: When Sean was abducted, my life split into two directions. One direction was to focus all of my energies into doing whatever I could to bring my son home, to save him. The other direction was just simply trying to live, to sleep at night, to eat, to work, to breathe. Now that Sean is home, my focus is doing what I can to make him happy, to treat him like a normal boy, do homework together, and get him to bed on time.We are still fighting continuing action from Brazil to return him to that country. They won’t just come and visit. They want it on their terms.
There’s no way we can get those five-plus years back that were stolen from us. Abduction is probably the most selfish act a parent can do to a child.You hope people will take the right path when they get divorced. For abductors, it’s all or nothing. But you can’t erase a child’s memory bank. There’s a special bond that exists between parents and children.We all need to do whatever we can to connect with our children and make that bond strong. Fortunately I was able to do that with Sean for four years before he was abducted and, even when we would see each other in Brazil under extremely arduous controlled circumstances, we still had that bond.
LIM: Do you think they’ll ever give up?
DG: They don’t have to give up.
LIM: Do you get recognized?
DG: Initially we did all the time and people couldn’t hold back. They wanted to shake my hand or give us a hug, wanted to let me know that they prayed for us and wished us well. Everyone had good intentions. It made Sean happy that there was so much love and warmth from people we didn’t even know. As time has gone on people have gotten a little more reserved. Now we typically get a thumbs up sign when they recognize us. They’re happy to just let us be a normal father and son.
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