The Battle for Sean Goldman: The View from Brazil

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Felipe Dana / AP

David Goldman, second right, arrives at Rio de Janeiro's airport on Dec. 17, 2009.

There are few winners in the case of Sean Goldman, the 9-year old boy at the center of a custody battle between his American father and Brazilian stepfather. But the losers are easy to spot, starting with common sense. More worryingly for Brazil, a growing nation desperate to be taken seriously on the world stage, is the damage being done to its image.

One of the reasons foreign investment in Brazil has risen so significantly over the last few years is that Brazilian law is relatively solid. Unlike neighbors Venezuela or Bolivia, for example, foreign companies in Brazil do not fear that the goalposts will be moved in the middle of the game or that powerful interests will tear up agreements. Brazilian lawyers said Sean Goldman's stepfather, João Lins e Silva, has diligently followed due process in his attempt to retain custody of his late wife's son. (She died in childbirth earlier this year.) But there is still a sense that the already slow legal system is being swayed, in part, by money and influence. Sean's stepfather's family, the Lins e Silvas, is well known in Brazilian legal circles and they have so far used the system skillfully to retain custody of the child.

"The Brazilian family are respected lawyers and they understand the situation and they know what steps they can legitimately take within the system here," said a U.S. official familiar with the case. "But what we need to make clear is that the Government of Brazil is in agreement for his return [to his biological father]. We need to work through the legal system so the Brazilian government can enforce the return." Indeed, David Goldman had flown to Rio de Janeiro to pick up his son after a federal court in Brazil ruled he had legal custody of the boy, only to be greeted by news that a Supreme Court judge had decided to halt the procedure, declaring that the boy himself had to testify about where he preferred to live.

If online comments are anything to go by, most Brazilians are embarrassed by the situation and believe Sean should be reunited with his family. Several of the almost 2,000 responses to an online story in the Rio newspaper O Globo accused the Lins e Silvas of "kidnapping" the boy. Some criticized what they called a stunt by the boy's step-grandmother of displaying to the press hand-painted posters purportedly written by the child that declared "I want to stay in Brazil forever." Others online commenters argued that another family without the name or legal background of the Lins e Silvas would have not secured such consistent triumphs in the appeals process.

"It's unbelievable and surreal that they are not giving custody of the boy to the biological father," read one typical comment. "This is only happening because the stepfather — the one with the least right to the child in question — is a rich and well-known lawyer. This story disgusts me because it is representative of thousands of other equally unjust [tales], where power speaks louder than ethics and justice."

Lawyers here cautioned that judges rule according to law, not public opinion, and stressed the correct legal procedures have been followed to the letter, albeit slowly. But that tortuous process has irritated many Brazilians and not just because they feel there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. Many see the Goldman ordeal as a glaring showcase of how molasses-like Brazilian justice operates — of how justice often denied because it's so inexcusably delayed. Moreover, in a nation where family is all important, people have been critical of the spectacle of people fighting so blatantly over a child. Brazilians cannot understand why David Goldman did not visit his son for several years. But they also have trouble sympathizing with a family that is putting a 9-year old through an emotional wringer.

If there is a silver lining it might be in focusing attention on an unresolved issue of international law. The U.S. State Dept said Brazil "demonstrates patterns of non-compliance" with the Hague Convention, the global treaty on protecting children it signed in 1999. At least 46 other minors are currently being held in similar limbo past the six-week deadline mandated by the accord. But whatever the international legal agreements, this case has been and eventually will be decided by Brazilian courts. The court of public opinion, however, has already ruled. No one is innocent. Except poor Sean.