David Goldman’s Custody Battle Over Son in Brazil Pushed Back

Asbury Park Press
David Goldman’s Custody Battle Over Son in Brazil Pushed Back
by Bill Handelman
November 16, 2009

herever he goes now, people recognize David Goldman. It must be the pain in his eyes that gives him away.

Strangers stop him on the street. They want to help. They’re just not sure how to do this, since they aren’t exactly sure where things stand anymore.

They know the whole story about his 9-year-old son, Sean, about the ex-wife whisking the little boy away five years ago, Goldman thinking they were going on vacation. They know the mother has now been dead for, what, 15 months?

Didn’t a federal judge in Brazil order that Sean be returned to New Jersey last spring? It was in all the papers, remember?

The judge handed down his decision in May. Since then the boy’s stepfather and the maternal grandparents have done their damnedest to gum up the judicial works, filing endless motions, appealing one decision after another after another, burying the case under a mountain of paperwork.

“They even hired a public relations firm to slander me,” Goldman said.

In this country, the story lives almost exclusively online, where Goldman’s supporters (BringSeanHome.org) have gathered more than 55,000 signatures on a petition. The Asbury Park Press was the first newspaper to write about the issue, last fall. Somehow most traditional media touched on the story briefly then dropped it, failing to grasp its significance.

There was a great flurry of activity on the Goldman front early this year. In late January, NBC dedicated an hour-long “Dateline” to the story. The program aired on a Friday. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., saw the show, picked up the phone, called a staff member and told her to arrange a meeting, first thing Monday morning. By Thursday Goldman and Smith were en route to Rio de Janeiro.

Naturally there were those in Washington who saw this as grand-standing on Smith’s part. Considering Smith’s track record on human rights, this cynical appraisal of the man’s motives seemed small at best. But cynicism, like partisanship, never goes out of style in our nation’s capital.

Goldman didn’t care what Smith’s motives were. All he knew was that someone with some influence was finally listening to him. For 4 1/2 years, no one else had paid him any mind. Now here was a congressman who was willing to fly down to Brazil with him, to be there for him, to take up the cause.

On that trip, Goldman saw his son for the first time since June 16, 2004. Smith went with him to the gated community where the boy lives. The congressman watched the reunion from a respectful distance. It was highly emotional.

“My son and I shared a closeness and love I had not dared to hope for (that day),” Goldman would write in a speech he prepared to read before the house’s Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight.

The speech ran a little long. He was supposed to have the floor for five minutes. It would take him 10 to read what he had written.

“After five years, I would hope they could spare me five minutes,” said Goldman.

He never got to read the speech. The hearing was postponed.

Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., is Goldman’s congressmen. Holt pushed for the hearing, scheduled for Oct. 29. He said he was told that it was postponed because “there were some organizational matters — to be worked out.”

“Representative Holt has been pressing me to reschedule the hearing,” said the chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass. “There will be a hearing. But it won’t be until after the first of the year.”

Why the postponement?

“There was an issue back in my district I had to attend to,” Delahunt said. “I just didn’t have the time to give this the attention it deserves.”

He went on to say that he knew Holt was disappointed. Also he said there were two other cases they were going to hear in addition to Goldman’s, and that “considerable travel” was involved in both cases.

Oh, where were the people coming from?

“It slips my mind right now,” Delahunt said, noting that it was after 5 o’clock and that his staff had gone home for the day.

I mentioned this conversation to Goldman.

“I’m disappointed, yeah,” he said. “But I can’t let myself get angry. To let that red ball of fury cloud my vision — which is to bring my son home — I will not allow that to happen. I won’t go down that road.”

So he sits and he waits. He has been waiting since June 2004. He has made 13 trips to Brazil. He has two lawyers, one here, one in Brazil. It has cost him close to $400,000, his money, his parents’ money, his family’s money.

Goldman saw his son briefly in February, in March, in May. During that time, He made the rounds of the television talk shows, on NBC, on CNN, on FOX. The New York Times did a long piece as did the Washington Post.

There were resolutions introduced in the House and the Senate. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Brazil’s foreign minister about the case. She then discussed the matter publicly. President Barack Obama brought it up with Brazil’s president at the White House in March. In July Obama spoke with Meredith Viera of the Today Show and said he had faith in Brazil’s legal process. “And as long as we’re making swift progress to get this resolved,” he added, “then we’re going to keep on working those channels.”

It looked like our political leaders had figured out that it was a smart play, backing Goldman. It looked like they were going to call on the Brazilian government to live up to its Hague Convention commitment, the core issue. (Among other things, the treaty sets out clear guidelines concerning international child abductions.)

Since the promising flurry of activity subsided, it seems like Goldman has been relegated to the back-burner, old news. A judicial hearing in Brazil was postponed in early September, a hearing on Capitol Hill, proposed by Smith, was canceled in late September, and now this latest hearing has been put off until sometime “after the first of the year.”

But it’s good to know Bill Delahunt feels Rush Holt’s disappointment.

Meanwhile, maybe we need to look at this case in another light, to frame it a little differently. Then maybe the politicians might start elbowing each other out of the way in order to get in line behind Goldman.

Here’s something to think about: Fifty years from now our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren will likely be reading about the Goldman case in their textbooks, assuming there is still such a thing as a textbook.

Sean Goldman is the perfect bookend to Elian Gonzalez, the 7-year-old boy the U.S. returned to his father in Cuba in April 2000.

One country did the right thing, the other did not.

Here’s something else: How will history remember those who had the power to do something in the Goldman case but chose instead to sit on their hands? How will petty, partisan politics look in hindsight?

Goldman’s argument is rock solid, a textbook case under the guidelines of the Hague Convention. Also, since he went public with the story almost 15 months ago, Goldman has been vetted up one side and down the other. As he says, “go ahead and look; there are no skeletons in my closet.”

He is therefore a natural poster boy for all the left-behind parents out there, all those tortured souls who grasp at the slightest hint of hope.

“David has spawned a movement,” says Smith, who is appalled by the general inertia in Washington when it comes to human rights.

“When you talk human rights, we should be taking full advantage of our clout — When it comes to human rights, we’re always the last ones in the room to raise our voice. It’s like we don’t mean business.”

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