By Eduardo A. de Oliveira, EthnicNEWz.org and Feet In 2 Worlds contributor
The ingredients were typical of a soap opera: a handsome American male model falls for a Brazilian fashion student. The couple met in Milan, Italy. From the love of David Goldman and Bruna Ribeiro resulted a happy wedding, a peaceful marriage, and life in New Jersey with their baby boy, Sean.
But the dream of a beautiful family went awry, resulting in an international custody battle that has strained ties between two friendly nations — even prompting an intervention by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In 2004, Ribeiro brought 4-year-old Sean to spend 15 days in Rio de Janeiro. Goldman would join them a few days later. But as soon as she landed in the “Marvelous City,” the mother called David and said she was not returning to the United States. Goldman’s nightmare started when his wife told him that if he ever wanted to see Sean again, he would have to assign sole custody of the boy to her.
Since that phone call, Goldman has fought to have the right to visit his son in Brazil. Meanwhile, Ribeiro married an influential and politically well-connected lawyer, João Paulo Lins e Silva — although in the U.S. her marriage to Goldman was still valid.
In August 2008, the couple’s story took a dramatic turn. After giving birth to a baby girl, Bruna Ribeiro Lins e Silva died of complications from the birth. Although tragic, the events gave Goldman renewed hope that, as the only blood-relative to Sean, he would finally be reunited with him.
Soon after, Goldman, who had been traveling to Brazil for every court hearing that ruled against him, would learn that his late wife’s Brazilian husband had filed a petition before a local family court to remove Goldman’s name from Sean’s birth records and replace it with his own.
Goldman was shocked that such a petition could ever be issued, as another piece of news rocked media outlets in Brazil. Claiming the case in Brazil was protected by “judicial secret,” a family judge of the 2nd District Court in Rio de Janeiro ruled that newspaper Folha de S. Paulo should pay a fine of approximately $60,000 for every article it published from then on about Sean’s custody case. The ruling silenced most of the country’s media.
David Goldman’s best chance of being reunited with his son lie with the Hague Abduction Convention, an international treaty signed by 68 countries, including Brazil and the U.S., to fight child abduction cases.
There are 42 other Hague Convention cases in Brazil that originate in the United States.
Attorney Ricardo Zamariola Junior, of Tranchesi Ortiz & Andrade, the family law office that represents Goldman in Brazil, said in an interview that the Hague Convention says that when a child is unlawfully removed from his or her original country, the nation to where he was brought must return the child within six weeks.
“All we’re asking is that Sean should be returned to New Jersey, the legitimate forum for debating his custody,” he said. “We’re not arguing that David should have… sole custody.”
Sean, who is now eight years old, has lived in Brazil for more than four years; he has attended an American school for two years. Last month, Goldman saw Sean for the first time since his mother took him to Brazil at age 4.
“I used the encounter to make sure he knows I love him, and have been fighting for him for 4 years,” David Goldman said in a phone interview.
The case gained the air of a diplomatic battle when on February 25, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Celso Amorim, Brazil’s foreign minister, that the American government is interested in finding a solution to the case. Presidents Barack Obama and Lula Da Silva are scheduled to meet later this month.
(On Wednesday, secretary Clinton said she hopes the case gets resolved. “I did raise it at the highest levels of the Brazilian government,” she told The Today Show.)
Also this week, Goldman met with several members of Congress. Rep. Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican, accompanied Goldman on his last trip to Rio de Janeiro, where the congressman mediated negotiations to facilitate David’s visit with Sean.
Following an article in The New York Times, several daily papers in Brazil published articles about the case. Still, O Globo newspaper, which is part of the TV Globo broadcasting company in Brazil, refrained from releasing the names of the parties involved in its article.
“It’s true that our judicial code (in Brazil) determines that, as a rule, the parties involved in international custody battles (must abide by) ‘judicial secret.’ However, that doesn’t impede journalists from investigating the facts,” said Zamariola, Goldman’s attorney.
In the U.S., NBC’s The Today Show has done a series of reports on the case. In one report, Goldman airs phone conversations with Bruna that were recorded after she moved to Brazil. In one clip she praises Goldman “as the best father Sean could ever have.”
Goldman’s friends created a web site about the father’s custody battle. The site publicizes the case’s every move, including bills presented before the U.S. Congress to force Brazil to comply with its international duties.
“I know the Brazilian people are honest and hard-working. I hope it’s not possible that these people who are holding my son want to ruin things for the majority of the good and the honest,” Goldman said last week.
Meanwhile, in Brazil, the case has recently been transferred from a local court to the Superior Tribunal de Justiça, the country’s highest federal court.
According to the Times, in August 2004 a New Jersey Superior Court judge ruled that Bruna’s keeping Sean in Brazil was “wrongful,” and ordered the child’s immediate repatriation.
The four-year custody battle has produced several online communities, with many Brazilians admitting their embarrassment at Brazil’s bias in favor of the powerful and well-connected.
“Today (Brazilian TV channel) SBT aired a five-minute report (on the case). The pressure is building. David will have the support of the Brazilian people. But the fight will continue on the Internet,” said Vicky Brollo, an O Globo reader who created an online community about the case.
Ironically, Goldman so far can rely more on the help of the Brazilian people than on their government.
He will participate in a rally in front of the White House the day Lula and Obama meet, to bring attention to his custody battle.
“Write to your judges. Call President Lula. Send letters to the Brazilian congressmen. The Brazilians don’t have to be mean. All they have to do is say: ‘Please, send Sean to his father,'” Goldman said.