Next Step for NJ Dad After Legal Win: Parenting

With legal battle behind, new challenges ahead

By GEOFF MULVIHILL
|  Friday, Dec 25, 2009  |  Updated 5:03 PM EDT
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Home for the Holidays: What's Next for NJ Dad?

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A sign welcoming home Sean Goldman is displayed near the Goldman home on December 24 in Tinton Falls, New Jersey.

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For more than five years, David Goldman fought to get his son back from Brazil.

Now that they are back together in the U.S., Goldman has a parenting struggle ahead: How does a dad get to know his 9-year-old son again, especially a little boy whose mother has died and who has been transplanted to a country he hasn't seen since he was a preschooler?

"I kind of feel terrible for him,'' said Dr. Alan Hilfer, referring to Goldman's son, Sean. Hilfer, the director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City, has been following media reports about the case.

"He's going to have a pretty hard time, even though I'm sure his dad will do the best he can.''

The Goldmans were reunited Thursday in Rio de Janeiro and headed almost immediately to an airport to depart for the United States to resume life together.

The saga goes back to 2004, when Goldman's wife, Bruna Bianchi, took Sean, then 4, to her native Brazil. Goldman, of Tinton Falls, N.J., says Bianchi was due back in two weeks but she never returned. She left Goldman, divorced him in Brazil, married another man and died in 2008 while giving birth to a daughter.

Goldman, who operates charter fishing boats, had been arguing for years that Sean belonged to him under an international treaty that sets procedures for dealing with child abductions.

After Bianchi died, Goldman's case started getting media attention in both countries -- and then momentum in Brazil's court system. His son's stepfather, part of a family of well-connected lawyers in Rio de Janeiro, continued to oppose the boy's return until Wednesday. One of the stepfather's main arguments was that Sean had grown roots in Brazil and would be better off there.

Judges ultimately found it was a case about abduction and not custody and returned the boy to Goldman.

People involved in the case say Sean still has a tough adjustment ahead.

Other parents who've been reunited with children after long lapses said the change can be heart-wrenching, even when there was regular contact, something Goldman has not had. Goldman, who dreams of taking his son fishing, was denied access to the boy until February and has seen him for no more than several hours at a time on a handful of occasions since then, and never alone.

Jeanette Vega of New York City was separated from her son, Remi, from 2000 to 2003. After allegations that she abused him when he was 2, he lived with relatives, then in foster care. Vega saw her son regularly while they were apart and he remained in the same city.

But she said it was still a difficult transition when he came back to her. He was accustomed to the rules of his foster home, for one. And he was skittish. "He was always having fears that someone would come and get him,'' she said.

Vega said it took months just to get him to think of her home as his home.

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who has traveled to Brazil several times with Goldman, said the father and son bonded easily when they were together even though he says the Sean's family in Brazil disparaged Goldman and took steps to make the transition more stressful -- including having Sean walk through a crush of photographers rather on his way to their reunion rather than slipping him in through a secure garage.

A string of key federal court rulings this month -- including one from the chief justice of Brazil's Supreme Court -- cleared the way for a permanent father-son reunion.

Hilfer said Goldman should spend time first alone with Sean, and gradually introduce him to his new American routine, waiting a few months to send him to school.

"He's a kid who's had many losses. There was the loss of his father, the loss of his mother,'' Hilfer said. "Now there's the loss of his extended family in Brazil.''

Hilfer said it's unlikely Sean will remember much of the people or places he knew as a younger boy in New Jersey. A child that age should adapt, Hilfer said, but the first year or two will be lonely.

Hilfer said the transition will be eased if Sean maintains contact with his maternal grandparents from Brazil. Goldman says he would allow such contact, but his New Jersey-based lawyer, Patricia Apy, said guidelines still have to be worked out.

Apy said the real problem is that the child-abduction treaty was not enforced for 5 1/2 years, long enough to make a return to Goldman harder on the boy.

 "There's nothing in the treaties to deal with this issue because the treaties aren't supposed to take that long,'' Apy said.

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