Justice recently revealed herself in Rio de Janeiro, if only briefly. On his son’s ninth birthday, May 25, David Goldman got word that the federal prosecutor in Rio recommended to the court that the boy be returned to his father.
Under normal circumstances, this would be cause for great celebration. Sadly, these are not normal circumstances. So Goldman resisted the urge to break out the party hats. As he has learned over the past five years — since the day his ex-wife took their son to Brazil, never to return — there is no such thing as normal in Brazil when it comes to international abduction and custody cases.
This is not new to him. Goldman has won judgments in the Brazilian courts before. Where did it get him? His son is still in Brazil, isn’t he?
Meanwhile an endless bureaucratic maze haunts Goldman’s dreams. “Every decision down there seems to be subject to appeal,” he says, sitting in the living room of his home in Tinton Falls, surrounded by pictures of Sean.
These are not new pictures. The most recent ones were taken in the spring of 2004. Sean hasn’t been in this house since he was 4 years old.
David Goldman is not a wealthy man. He takes people out fishing on his boat for a living. From time to time, he gets modeling jobs in New York and goes up to the city for photo shoots. He must keep working just to pay off his legal fees. He estimates he has gone through over $360,000 trying to get his son back. It’s expensive, having a lawyer in Brazil and another here, traveling back and forth, nine times so far, staying in a hotel for weeks at a stretch.
Sean lives in Rio with his stepfather, Joao Paulo Lins e Silva, a lawyer from a wealthy family. Always nearby is his maternal grandmother, Sylvana Ribeiro. Sean’s mother died last summer after giving birth to a daughter. Within a couple of months, the custody dispute had turned into a high-profile case and a full-blown scandal, attracting coverage from all the television networks, getting the full “Dateline” treatment from NBC.
Things were happening quickly. There was pressure on the Brazilian government to honor the international child abduction treaty it signed in 2003.
The U.S. House of Representatives drafted a resolution, passed unanimously. The U.S. Senate did likewise. The state of New Jersey got into the act.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton brought up the Goldman situation with the Brazilian foreign minister. President Barack Obama brought it up with the president of Brazil. Suddenly this was front-page news. Every major news gathering organization on two continents was on the case, and Goldman was making the rounds on the cable news circuit, his sadness as plain as the nose on his face.
Just as suddenly, everything stopped. For two months, there was nothing in the papers, nothing on TV, nothing new about Goldman and his son.
“People thought Sean was home,” Goldman says. “After the secretary of state and the president and both houses of congress weighed in, I guess people thought Brazil had to send him home.”
One day last week Goldman went into a tackle shop in Atlantic Highlands, and a guy asked how Sean liked being home. When he’s up in the city someone will recognize him, stop him on the street, and ask if Sean is having any trouble adjusting. What do you say to this if you’re David Goldman?
After two more months of waiting for Brazilian justice to kick in, the fact that there was no news was news in itself.
Now finally the Brazilian prosecutor provides a concrete development. But after so many false starts, how does Goldman interpret this latest news? What does he make of the fact that three court-appointed psychologists and now a federal prosecutor have sided with him — even as the boy’s stepfather and his maternal grandparents step up efforts to discredit this man who lives in an empty house in New Jersey with old pictures of his son?
“I’m not an expert on the Brazilian judicial system,” Bernard Aronson says from his office in Washington D.C. “But it’s certainly a positive sign, an encouraging sign, for some public official in Brazil to come out in favor of David, it’s certainly better than if he’d come down on the other side.”
Aronson was the assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs between 1989 and 1993, under both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Over the years, he has come to the conclusion that “the Brazilian system has a history of breaking everybody’s heart.”
“So far it’s words,” he says of the latest news. “It’s not binding.”
He also believes there is a growing resentment in Brazil of the aristocratic class. This may be reflected in Brazil’s media, which has not adopted a unified stand against the bullies from North America. Some outlets have actually sided with Goldman, despite on-going attempts to vilify him.
“This is the kind of family that is used to getting its way,” Aronson says of the powerful Lins e Silva clan. “They have tried to stir up nationalist feelings with the preposterous notion that the boy is Brazilian.”
Sean Goldman was born in Red Bank, at Riverview Hospital.
In his recommendation to the court, the prosecutor pretty much spelled it out: This was a “wrongful retention,” he wrote, and the boy “should be under the custody of the biological parent.” He cites the findings of the three court-appointed psychologists, who agreed that the child had incurred “serious psychological damage” while in Brazil.
Yet Sean continues to be subjected to this, a 9-year-old boy with no real say in the matter, and Goldman misses yet another birthday because the people who have his son long ago turned visitation into a dirty word.
“Who knows what kind of stress and trauma they put on him,” Goldman says.
He can’t even bring himself to talk about the last visitation, too painful. The torn expression on the boy’s face was too much for him to bear.
“Where is the urgency?” he wonders. Can’t anyone else feel the urgency? So he’ll pass on the party hats for now.
“I can’t get on the roller coaster,” he says. “I have to stand off to the side and watch it go up and down.”