Brazil and the United States Go to War over a Little Boy

Epoca Magazine with Sean Here’s where the American and Brazilian media concur: 1) In 2004, four-year-old Sean Goldman, a Brazilian-American boy from New Jersey, was taken on vacation by his mother to her native Rio de Janeiro, and never came back.

2) A U.S. court ruled the case an abduction and ordered his immediate return to his American father, which the mother ignored. A Brazilian court granted the mother custody, which the father, David Goldman, found outrageous. She re-married and then, last year, died giving birth to her second child.

3) Sean, who will turn nine in May, now lives with his stepfather, João Paulo Lins e Silva, his baby half-sister, and his maternal grandparents. The Brazilian family is doing everything in its power to keep him there. Sean’s American father, who recently saw his son for the first time in four years, is doing everything in his power to win him back.

Beyond that, the story is being covered like a military conflict, with some reporters on both sides treating those on the other side as incomprensible enemies.

In the U.S., the case is portrayed as a clear-cut case of kidnapping. “Son Abducted By Mom to Brazil,” read an on-screen graphic on CNN. Americans have watched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Goldman’s congressman, Chris Smith, essentially call it an open and shut case, a clear violation of the Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The House of Representatives unanimously approved a resolution pressing Brazil to return Sean.

Prompted by the American coverage, the Brazilian press began covering the story and the Lins e Silva family – who had scored consecutive victories regarding custody of Sean in Brazilian courts – scrambled to come up with a media strategy to avoid “becoming a punching bag,” as João Paulo Lins e Silva would later tell O Globo. Starting this month, they granted interviews sparingly but strategically, to generally positive results for their side.

Mark DeAngelis, a representative of the Goldman family, thinks it’s clear why the American coverage and Brazilian coverage have been so different. “The American media looks at this story and says, ‘here’s a case of parental-child abduction, a black and white case of a mother illegally retaining the child in a foreign country,'” he said. “They do ask for the other side of the story, but it tends to backfire. There’s usually two sides, but in this case there isn’t another side.”

Brazilians, who like most Latin Americans are sensitive to any whiff of U.S. intervention into their affairs, have been less willing to automatically identify the American as hero and the Brazilian as victim. Many have expressed disgust that the American father is exposing his son’s image so widely on the Internet.

The Brazilian family’s new lawyer, Sergio Tostes, sees it differently from DeAngelis. Fluent in English and with a masters degree from Harvard Law School, Tostes is the only member of the stepfather’s team to have spoken extensively to the American press, including the television program Dateline. “What you have here is a difference of mentality,” he told GlobalPost. “You have to understand, people think differently in each place.”

Like many Brazilians, Tostes is convinced that because the child has adapted to life here and appears to be in a loving home, it is in his best interest to stay.

He also thinks Americans discount foreign justice systems, which has led them to believe a family of powerful lawyers like the Lins e Silvas can manipulate the results. (To be fair, many Brazilians believe this as well.) “It is one of the American cliches that the judiciaries of all other countries are simply corrupt and are not responsible,” he said. “They think Brazil is just like Nigeria. They think Brazil is just like Venezuela. Not true.”

In the U.S., Americans have heard that the Brazilian courts, manipulated by the evil stepfather’s high society family of lawyers specialized in international family law – oh, the irony – granted the mother custody.

They believe that Goldman visited Brazil many times, hoping to see Sean but stymied by legal documents the Brazilian family required him to sign as a precondition. And that when Sean’s mother died, the courts had Goldman’s name removed from the child’s birth certificate.

And they’ve gotten to know Sean’s father as a loving dad who has longed for his son. They’ve seen adorable video clips of him teaching the toddler dance steps and playing with him in the pool.

If the American media has not adequately explained the Brazilian side of the case, it has a good defense: The Lins e Silva family has for the most part not granted interviews.

Unlike Americans, Brazilians initially heard little about the case after the mother’s death in August.

Under Brazilian law, cases involving minors fall into what is called “secrecy of justice.” Folha de S. Paulo, the country’s highest circulation newspaper, was the first major media outlet to break the story on Sept. 16, 2008 – but it did so in a piece rendered toothless by not mentioning names.

O Estado de S. Paulo and O Globo, the country’s other top newspapers, wrote nothing until late February, when the storm of American coverage and the Goldman family’s website – – ended any hope of secrecy about the dispute.

After Folha published the first story, a court order prevented the newspaper from writing anything further, according to Carlos Eduardo Lins da Silva, the ombudsman for Folha de S. Paulo (and no relation to the stepfather). “The judicial system is now the hand of censorship in Brazil,” Lins da Silva said. (Top Folha editors did not return requests for comment.)

Probably the most visible print story in Brazil about the case has been the March 9 cover of Época magazine, which portrayed Sean as a loving boy with a close family: Sean is passionate about his half-sister, clings to his grandmother, calls his stepfather “dad” and wants to be a lawyer (and practice the Brazilian martial art capoeira) just like him. “It is evident to anyone who passes a day in the house that he feels protected, but not spoiled,” the reporter wrote.

The first time Sean’s father is mentioned, it is for creating “an international circus with Sean’s face and images of his past printed on the Internet by the biological father, the ex-model David Goldman, who today is a partner in a boat business that organizes cruises.” The story is followed by a much shorter telephone interview with Goldman.

Márcio Chaer, editor of Consultor Jurídico, an online Brazilian legal publication that has followed the case and actually published the first known story about it in June 2007 (also with no names) said the Época report was “in no way balanced, was not correct, was not honest.”

Época’s managing editor, Hélio Gurovitz, said via email that Época gave space to both sides. “Nobody, up to our cover story, had heard the Brazilian family’s version of the events,” he wrote. “Nobody knew how Sean lived … If our story has one clear side, that’s the side of the kid – and of other children in the same situation.”

It’s unclear whether an end is in sight.

Tostes, the lawyer for the Brazilian side, recently said that the matter had spun out of control, and that a negotiated solution would be the best way out.

“Everybody, especially the biological father, is not considering the interest of the kid,” said Tostes, a colorful character who in an hour-long interview showed several times that he has mastered English curse words. He also said he had proposed a meeting between the father and stepfather and their respective lawyers, with a mediator present. The mediator, he said, could be American.

Tostes said he was willing to listen to Goldman’s best argument that Sean should live in the United States. “Maybe he would convince me,” he said, not very convincingly.

For his part, DeAngelis (the Goldman family representative) said he was unaware of the offer to negotiate, and that the family would await the upcoming decision on the case in Brazilian federal court. He said he expected one of three outcomes: Goldman is granted custody and Sean returns to New Jersey while appeals are pending, Goldman is granted custody but Sean stays in Brazil pending the appeals process, or custody is awarded to João Paulo Lins e Silva.

Still, Tostes is headed to the New York area next week on a business trip. He confirmed he will be there to work on the case, although he would not be any more specific. On the off-chance that a meeting is planned, and on the very off-chance that an out-of-court resolution is reached, the families would accomplish what their respective countries’ media have not: being on the same page.

This article appeared originally in GlobalPost under the headline “The Elian Gonzalez of Brazil.” You can read more news and commentary on Brazil and the world at their website:


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