The Procedural Win: What you can learn from one father’s fight for custody

By Jennifer M. Paine

Attorney, Cordell & Cordell, P.C., Detroit office

Note: This is Part 1 of a four-part overview of the Hague Convention treaty and some practical lessons for your case. Click here to read Part 2, click here to read Part 3 and click here to read Part 4.

Much has been reported about David and Sean Goldman’s international custody case. The battle is far from over, as Sean’s Brazilian family has filed motions in the United States to have Sean returned to Brazil, to receive visitation, and to be compensated financially for, inter alia, court costs and defamation. We can expect the media frenzy not to fade anytime soon.

But what has not been widely reported is the law underlying the case, one of the Hague Convention treaties on children, and what the case means to you even if yours does not span overseas. 

 

The Background

He had an enviable life: a successful modeling career, a beautiful wife, a home with land and a fishing river, and an energetic baby boy, Sean. David Goldman and Brazilian fashion student Bruna Bianchi met in Milan in 1997 and were enamored with each other. They married at Christmastime in 1999 and moved to New Jersey, David’s home state, to start their family. Soon, they welcomed Sean. From birth, Sean and David were inseparable. “What didn’t we do together?” he said during an interview with Meredith Vieria for Dateline NBC, “I became ‘Mr. Mom.’ I would take him out for breakfast. Take him on the boat. We did everything – everything a father and son could do, and then some.”

But all of that changed on June 16, 2004. Sean was a beaming 4-year-old, and Bruna and her parents, who had flown in from Brazil, tended him at the airport as they said their goodbyes. It was supposed to be a two-week vacation in Brazil. David and Bruna said “I love you” and gave hugs and kisses, as families would before a trip. But when Bruna arrived in Brazil, she called David with devastating news: “Our marriage is over. Our love affair is over. I’ve decided to stay in Brazil.” She gave no reason. She wanted David to sign Sean’s custody to her immediately. 

Over the next five years, his life crumbled hopelessly. Bruna obtained a temporary custody order for Sean in the Brazilian courts, and when Sean obtained an order from the United States demanding she return Sean within 48 hours, she ignored it. Then, she obtained a Brazilian divorce and an order for sole custody of Sean. She married a renowned family law attorney, Joao Paulo Lins E Silvia, in Brazil and with him and her parents began isolating Sean from David. He received death threats. They refused his visits. He lost appeal after appeal in the Brazilian courts. Then, he lost Bruna. She died just hours after giving birth to a baby girl and left Sean and the newborn to Lins E Silvia. He litigated Sean’s custody in Brazil full force, filing civil suits against David and demanding that he be named as Sean’s father on his birth certificate. He was slowly erasing David from Sean’s life. 

The international custody battle entered the world stage when Dateline NBC began covering the story. David had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for attorneys in Brazil and the United States. His friends started a Web site with an online petition to raise money for his case. As Dateline NBC reported, interest grew, and politicians watching the story got involved. At the forefront were New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith, then-Senator Barack Obama and now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who called on Brazilian officials to honor their duties under an international treaty, the Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

The battles in the Brazilian courts continued. Over five years, David won parenting time, only to have Lins E Silvia deny it or supervise it like a hawk. He won custody, only to have the Brazilian courts stay his rights to retrieve Sean, and watched as the Brazilian family’s anti-Dad campaign took shape in Sean. From a happy little boy who eagerly hugged his father and cheered “Dada” four years ago, Sean had grown to an 8-year-old with a timid smile, unsure whether to utter “Dad” to this man he misleadingly thought abandoned him. Media in the United States and Brazil covered the case in a frenzy. 

At Christmastime in 2009, a Brazilian judge put the constant climb up and down the appeal ladder in Brazil to rest. According to the Hague Convention, Sean was to be returned to the United States immediately. The judge’s ruling, based on reports from three Brazilian psychologists, said Sean would suffer every day he remained in Brazil. David returned to Brazil immediately. After over a dozen flights to retrieve his son, this flight would be different. David and his attorneys waited in Brazil, cooped in a tiny hotel room, waiting for the judge’s ruling. It came mid-week, an order for the exchange to take place Thursday morning, Christmas Eve.

“It was a Christmas miracle,” David said. The exchange at the embassy, Sean’s grandmother dragging him past reporters and cameras, was more peaceful than anticipated. She asked if she could see Sean, and he agreed. “She’s still his grandmother,” he said. And he hugged her. And he had her tell Sean he was a good father. They landed in Orlando Christmas Eve afternoon, and they have been inseparable since.

At home in New Jersey a few days later, playing on the river, Sean called for David with, “Dad.” “I’ve been waiting for five years to hear that, those words again. And they’re precious words, from a precious little boy.”

Much has been reported about David and Sean Goldman’s case. The battle is far from over, as Sean’s Brazilian family has filed motions in the United States to have Sean returned to Brazil, to receive visitation, and to be compensated financially for, inter alia, court costs and defamation. We can expect the media frenzy not to fade anytime soon.

But what has not been widely reported is the law underlying the case, one of the Hague Convention treaties on children, and what the case means to you even if yours does not span overseas. 

Note: This is Part 1 of a four-part overview of the Hague Convention treaty and some practical lessons for your case. Click here to read Part 2, click here to read Part 3 and click here to read Part 4.

 

Jennifer M. Paine is an Associate Attorney in the Detroit, Michigan office of Cordell & Cordell P.C. She is licensed to practice in Michigan, and has been admitted pro hac vice in Illinois, Ohio, and the United States Court of Federal Claims. Ms. Paine received her BA in English and Mathematics from Albion College and graduated Summa Cum Laude. She received her Juris Doctorate from MSU College of Law and graduated Summa Cum Laude.

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