Fight for 8-Year-Old Colors Relationship Between U.S., Brazil

American David Goldman holds his son, Sean. Goldman's wife took the boy to Brazil when he was 4. She has since died. Goldman is fighting for custody.
American David Goldman holds his son, Sean. Goldman's wife took the boy to Brazil when he was 4. She has since died. Goldman is fighting for custody. (Family Photo)
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By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 13, 2009

RIO DE JANEIRO -- When Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva meets with President Obama on Saturday in Washington for the first time, the most closely watched issue between their two countries might not be energy, the environment or hemispheric security but the custody of an 8-year-old boy.

The case of Sean Goldman, whose Brazilian mother moved him from New Jersey to Rio de Janeiro four years ago without his American father's consent, has grown from an international custody dispute into a delicate political problem. Although it has not reached the fever pitch surrounding Elián González, the Cuban youngster at the heart of a custody and immigration controversy in 2000, the story has gained prominence since Sean's mother died in August, leaving him in the care of her second husband.

The battle has become a preoccupation at the highest levels of the U.S. government and is an irritant in relations with Latin America's most powerful country. The topic was the first Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton raised during a meeting with Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim in Washington last week, according to the State Department. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution Wednesday calling for Sean's return to his father, and a similar resolution is pending in the Senate.

When not canvassing government offices, Sean's father, David Goldman, has told his story to the likes of Larry King and Dr. Phil. The Brazilian media recently abandoned a near silence on the story, which partly stemmed from a judge's orders limiting coverage, and it has become regular fodder on the news since the meeting between Clinton and Amorim.

There appears to be little conflict between the two governments over how the case should be resolved.

Both governments have indicated that they consider the decision by Goldman's wife, Bruna Bianchi, to move Sean to Brazil in 2004 a violation of the Hague Abduction Convention, an international treaty that seeks to determine whether children have been wrongfully removed from their country of habitual residence.

The State Department, as well as the Brazilian government authority that deals with the treaty, has called for Sean's return to the United States. But the case remains in federal court in Brazil awaiting a ruling on whether the treaty has been violated.

"There is nothing which would in any way approximate to a diplomatic incident" in the case, Amorim said in an interview in Brazil.

The State Department at any time is working on as many as 2,000 Hague cases, and there are currently 50 such cases involving American parents seeking to have children returned from Brazil, the fifth most of any country after Mexico, India, Japan and Canada, said Assistant Secretary Janice L. Jacobs in the Bureau of Consular Affairs. The State Department has characterized Brazil as having a "pattern" of "noncompliance" on the treaty, she said.

"It is time to reunite Sean Goldman with his father, David," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who sponsored one of the resolutions calling for Sean's return. "The Brazilian government is not complying with international law and risks undermining relations between our two countries."

But the treaty is meant to settle which country should have jurisdiction in the custody dispute, not who should have custody, and both countries say Brazil's judicial system, which has already dealt Goldman several defeats, must ultimately decide the case.

"It's not for me, or anyone in the executive branch, to take the decision; it's the justice [system] that will have to interpret the convention in the light of the concrete events," Amorim said. He added: "The Hague convention has to be looked at and taken into account in the final decision."

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