The Boy Who Came Back
By Jayne Jacova Feld
The world watched as New Jersey’s Sean Goldman was returned to his father in 2009 – five years after being abducted by his mother and taken to Brazil. Today, the reunited father and son are working to help other families fighting custody battles in foreign countries.
It’s an iconic image: 12-year-old Sean Goldman and his father David are boarding a plane in Rio Di Janeiro bound for the United States. After a six-year battle, David is finally bringing home the son who had been abducted by his mother to live in Brazil. It is Christmas Eve 2009. David turns and signals thumbs up. The victorious moment stands as a powerful symbol of hope to the hundreds of parents still fighting international custodial battles.
That dramatic reunion, more than five years after Sean’s Brazilian mother took the then 4-year-old on what was ostensibly a two-week trip, garnered the attention of national media and, ultimately, the intervention of the U.S. Congress, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama. It strained relations between the two nations before a lengthy court battle resulted in Sean’s celebrated return to his father in Monmouth County.
Some two-and-a-half years later, life has taken on a rhythm of normalcy. Days are filled with baseball games, fishing trips and sixth-grade homework. Yet neither father nor son could ever truly leave the five-year episode behind.
“He lost a lot of his innocence,” David Goldman recently told SJ Magazine. “He was taken away from his family, friends, his school and his dad. It ripped apart half of his identity at 4 years old. He was told horrible things: that he was abandoned, he wasn’t loved, that it was a bad place here. He wasn’t allowed to mourn, cry or miss life here. It’s called parental alienation and if it continued any longer, he probably wouldn’t even have recognized me as his dad.”
A former model who charters fishing boats for a living, Goldman has chosen to remain in the public eye to help other families in similar straights. They’re known as “left behind parents and families” – those who are still fighting estranged spouses or ex-paramours over children wrongfully removed from the United States or detained in another country. The plight is more complicated, and emotionally and financially draining due to the need to employ two sets of lawyers, both for home and away. Goldman knows only too well the anguish parents experience every day they’re kept apart from their children.
It’s for the left behind, and the children who suffer the way Sean did, that he devotes as much time as possible to Washington, D.C., advocating for a bill aptly named the “Sean and David Goldman International Child Abduction, Prevention and Return Act.” Authored by Congressman Chris Smith (NJ-4), who was instrumental in bringing Sean home, the measure is designed to give the U.S. State Department stronger tools to assist in bringing back internationally abducted children.
Goldman is also devoted to growing the Bring Sean Home Foundation. Founded by New Jersey-based friends and neighbors moved by Goldman’s case, the non-profit organization has since expanded its mission to assist other families in similar need. And although Sean has been living with his father in Tinton Falls since their reunion, the case is not truly over. Sean’s maternal grandmother, Silvana Bianchi, continues to fight for custody of the boy even after Sean’s mother, Bruna Bianchi, died in childbirth during the boy’s time in Brazil.
Still, given the trauma Sean has endured, he’s remarkably well-adjusted, playing on two little league baseball teams, fishing during down time and making honor roll at his middle school. At the same time, David says, his son has recently felt the need to take on the cause. Breaking a two-and-a-half-year silence, Sean spoke earlier this year to Dateline’s Meredith Vieira about his life in Brazil. To Vieira, a reporter who accompanied David on several of his 15 trips to Brazil, Sean confessed that the five years “weren’t really easy.” He told Vieira he “kind of tucked his feelings away” to live with the situation.
The interview, says his dad, was Sean’s way of helping other abducted kids.”He knows I’m advocating so other families don’t get into the position we were in for so long,” says David. “He doesn’t want other kids to have to go through what he had to endure, what I had to go through.”
Although the Goldman case has successfully brought attention to left-behind parents and the suffering of their separated children, international child abduction remains a growing problem. To Goldman’s knowledge, Sean is still the only American child who has been returned from Brazil as a result of a judicial decision. Some 60 other U.S. children remain trapped there even as Brazil is one of 87 countries that has signed onto the Hague Convention, a treaty that establishes a legal framework for recovering children wrongfully removed from their home country or detained in another country.
And that’s just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The number of reported cases of international child abductions by a parent has more than doubled over the last three years (2008-2010) compared to the three previous years, according to the U.S. State Department.
Between 2008 and 2010, there was a net increase of 2,911 reported cases of children abducted internationally. Yet, for every three cases closed over this time, only one has actually resulted in the return of a child to the United States. Despite the existence of the Hague Convention, the return rate for countries that have signed on to the treaty has been only marginally better over the past ten years than for countries that do not participate, according to state department statistics.
While countries along the border to Mexico have the most reported cases, New Jersey has its share of abducted children cases. Among them are both success stories and languishing cases. Among the victories is the case of two girls from Pine Hill, Rayhana and Sumyra, who were abducted while in Liberia last summer. The girls were reunited with their American mother and returned home four months later after state department involvement, according to their grand-father David Feimster.
Among the still active cases, Peter Innes, a former Runnemede resident, has not seen his 12-year-old daughter Victoria since the girl was taken by her mother to Spain in 2005 (see sidebar). And North Jersey resident Michael Elias, an Iraqi war veteran, has been struggling since 2008 for the return of his young children. Since Jade and Michael Jr. were taken by their mother to Japan, the only contact Elias has had with them since was a brief conversation on Skype.
Top U.S. diplomats, including Hillary Clinton, acknowledge the growing problem and work both to help families find resources and encourage more countries to sign onto the Hague convention. Yet activists say the state department is failing – in large part because it does not have the power to effectively advocate for abducted American children.
“There really is no advocacy on the part of the United States government to bring back abducted American children,” charges Mark DeAngelis, one of the five volunteer directors of the Bring Sean Home Foundation. “The state department obviously desires to maintain harmonious bilateral relations with other countries, and that’s an inherent conflict of interest. It’s like child abduction cases are almost like diplomatic irritants. [The State Department] is not going to disturb relations just for a couple of abducted kids.”
DeAngelis understands there is no simple fix, but he’s hopeful that the bill bearing the Goldman name, if passed, will put pressure on both the president and the state department to take stronger actions to bring back abducted children.
“One asset we have that’s very valuable is the publicity surrounding the Goldman case,” adds DeAngelis, who signed on to the cause soon after chartering Goldman’s fishing boat 10 days after Sean’s abduction. “It’s challenging to keep this issue alive in the public’s eye, but both David and Sean became public figures, and they get people’s attention.”
The bill’s unanimous passage by the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights in March is a hopeful sign of support for the measure. Modeled after successful legislation Congressman Smith wrote to curb international slave trafficking, the act directs the president to take 17 different actions to aggressively advocate for the return of abducted children, says Smith. The actions start small but progress by putting economic pressure on non-cooperating foreign governments. They range from the denial of funding for joint scientific research projects to limiting trade preferences and withholding visas and the sanctioning of aid.
“The idea is that the president should not be without tools in the toolbox,” says Smith, who has been a champion of human rights during his 15 consecutive terms representing New Jersey’s fourth congressional district. “Right now we just admonish these countries.”
Smith, who lobbied on behalf of the Goldmans with resolutions, hearings, continual speeches on the Congressional floor, meetings with the Brazilian ambassador and visits to the United Nations, says he has made the resolution his top priority.
“I will not walk away until this is law,” he adds. “When it comes to human rights and families, no stone can ever be left unturned.”
David Goldman too is committed. His own painful experiences blatantly exposed the weaknesses of the Hague Treaty.
In his memoir “A Father’s Love: One Man’s Unrelenting Battle to Bring His Abducted Son Home” (Viking Press), which Goldman wrote last year, he recalls the ordeal of reclaiming his son from his former in-laws, who he charges had brainwashed Sean and initially convinced Brazilian courts he had abandoned the boy.
Although he had filed an abduction and custody case in U.S. and Brazilian courts, alleging that Sean’s mother had tricked him into taking his son away, it wasn’t until the media glare and attention from top U.S. government officials that a court in Rio de Janeiro concluded Sean was illegally detained and ordered him returned to his father.
“We had been through hell and back during those six years,” he recalls. Now we’re reunited and can be father and son again. But other families are still suffering. We need to get these kids back.”
NJ’s Other Stories of Abduction
On his daughter’s 12th birthday, Peter Innes wrote a new message on the website he created for her in her absence. “As you grow into the wonderful smart young lady that I know you will become, you will want to know the truth about me and your American family,” he wrote on the site that comprehensively details his story. “Whenever you are ready, so am I.”
The story of the abduction of Victoria Innes, as Innes tells it, starts typically enough with a marriage gone bad between two people of different nationalities. But then it diverts into uncharted territory involving wealthy adversaries, government incompetence and outrageous accusations. Victoria Innes was only 5 when her mother, Maria Jose Carrascosa, a Spanish attorney, took the girl to Spain, despite the existence of a consent agreement prohibiting her removal from New Jersey. Since then, Innes says, Victoria has been living with her Spanish grandparents in a concealed location. Meanwhile, Carrascosa, who returned to New Jersey in 2006 with a Spanish court order awarding her custody of Victoria, was arrested and convicted on kidnapping charges. She has been serving a 14-year sentence in a New Jersey prison.
“I do think she’ll spend 14 years in prison rather than allow me access to my daughter,” he says. Innes, who owns a small advertising agency in Hasbrouck Heights, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to bring her back.
At the very start, he petitioned the Spanish government to order the return of Victoria, a U.S. citizen, under the Hague Convention. His petition was refused by Spanish courts, despite the fact that Innes has been awarded sole legal custody of his daughter in New Jersey.
While he continues to litigate in Spain, demanding that the Spanish government respect the custody determination of the New Jersey courts, the former Glendora resident says he has little hope of winning back his daughter through the judicial process. The Carrascosas have accused him of bigamy and claimed he’s an international drug smuggler who attempted to murder his former wife by poisoning her.
Still, he’s optimistic that his website will lead his daughter to him. “She’s going to wake up at some point and wonder why she needs a security guard to go to school,” says Innes, who is now remarried and father to a 5-year-old son. “At some point, she’s going to send me an email.”
Rahanna and Summyra
Jackson resident David Feimster says the four months his grandchildren were held captive in Tunisia felt like years. The girls’ grandfather is now an activist for helping internationally abducted children.
“The only way I can put it is it’s like a bad Lifetime movie while you’re going through it,” says Feimster, who now helps other families through a foundation called Destination Jersey Hope.
Although the marriage between Feimster’s daughter, Suzanne, and her Tunisian-born husband Walid Bensayeh was on the rocks, the girls were with both parents on a family trip to Tunisia in August 2011. A Tunisian court had awarded Suzanne custody of the girls from Bensayeh, a taxicab driver in Philadelphia who lives in the home they both own in Pine Hill. The girls were literally snatched out of the hands of their mother and grandmother, who were beaten during the attack, Feimster says.
The situation was complicated by the fact that the girls have severe food allergies and their food supply, enough for a four-week trip, was obviously depleted, he says.
Just before Thanksgiving, both girls were returned, says Feimster, adding that he can’t go into details due to the custody battle that is currently taking place. He credits Congressman Chris Smith (N-4) as being instrumental in helping in the process.
“In our situation, because everything happened overseas, [Bensayeh] broke no U.S. laws,” explains Feimster. “We have to fight him in court all over again to keep this from happening again.”
Jade and Michael Elias
As a young Marine stationed in Okinawa, Japan, Michael Elias met his future wife Mayumi. He brought his bride back to the United States and married her when Mayumi became pregnant with their daughter Jade. Their son Michael Jr. was born while he was in Iraq on a tour of duty in 2007.
But when Elias returned home, it was to different circumstances. The marriage between Elias, who suffered from a traumatic brain injury while on duty, and Mayumi was dissolving. Both had new partners when they went to court to decide custody for the young children.
Still, it came as a complete shock when Mayumi disappeared with the children in 2008, especially since the custody judge had demanded Mayumi turn over the youngsters’ U.S. and Japanese passports. Elias later learned through flight records that his children had been given duplicate passports at the Japanese consulate, where Mayumi worked processing visas and passports.
His last contact with the children was a brief Skype conversation on Jade’s second birthday.
For the last four years, Elias and his parents have been actively fighting to bring his children home. Patricia Apy, the lawyer who successfully brought Sean Goldman home works for him free of charge while his parents have traveled from New Jersey to Japan to support Congressman Smith’s international child abduction treaty initiatives.
Elias says Japan’s reputation as a haven for abducted children is well deserved.
Japan has refused to sign the Hague Treaty while the U.S. State Department has been trying for years to resolve the more than 300 child abduction cases that have been filed with the department during the last 18 years. But not one child has ever been returned to the United States from Japan through diplomatic measures, according to the U.S. State Department.
Elias, who works as a corrections officer for Bergen County Prison, says some days he’s more hopeful than others.
“My mother and I are extremely busy with this,” he says. “But sometimes I just feel like I’m in the same position I was four years ago, even though we have come so far.”
Copyright © 2012 SJ Magazine
The Boy Who Came Back: http://www.sjmagazine.net/content/july_2012/the_boy_whocame_back_.asp