Father's Christmas reunion with the son he lost in Brazil

Five-year custody battle with family of deceased wife ends after court sends boy back to America

For David Goldman of New Jersey this was one Christmas gift that needed no wrapping. The son he hadn't seen for five years was curled up and asleep in the seat of a private jet, high in the sky en route at last from Brazil to the United States. "We're on our way," the father said. "My heart is just melting."

Thus ended a trans-continental child custody struggle that has held the media of both the US and Brazil in its thrall for months as the pendulum of legal advantage swung wildly back and forth between the Brazilian family, who were struggling to keep nine-year-old Sean, and the anguished father back in the US, who even managed to get President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to weigh in on his side.

Any father's nightmare, it began in 2004 when his then wife, Bruna Bianchi, took the boy, Sean, on what was meant to be a two-week holiday to see family in her native Brazil. She never returned home to New Jersey, however. Instead she stayed in Brazil, divorced Mr Goldman and married a prominent divorce lawyer there. They held on to Sean, in a case that the US government eventually called an abduction. But Ms Bianchi died in child-birth last year.

The top court in Brazil finally ruled definitively this week that Mr Goldman, as the boy's only living blood parent, should have custody. And so, on board the jet chartered by NBC television, Mr Goldman returned there to reunite with Sean at the US consulate in an atmosphere, he hoped, of calm and privacy. The hand-over did indeed happen in Rio de Janeiro on Christmas Eve and within hours the father and son – with NBC reporters and Mr Goldman's member of Congress, Chris Smith, in tow – were above the clouds headed to Orlando, Florida. According to family friends, they were to remain in Florida for a few days with a possible Christmas Day visit to Disney World.

Whatever celebrations they managed yesterday surely contrasted sharply with the pandemonium on Thursday. The dignity and sensitivity that Mr Goldman said he had been expecting did not quite happen. It might have done, US officials intimated, if the lawyers for the Brazilian family had listened to their advice and driven the car with Sean onboard directly into a private garage at the consulate.

Rather, they parked on the public street and found themselves barging with the bewildered-looking boy through a throng of onlookers, family supporters and 100-odd reporters and photographers. Holding Sean was his step-father, Joao Paulo Lins e Silva, who with his maternal grandmother, Silvana Bianchi, had led the ultimately doomed legal efforts to keep him in Brazil.

"They're hurting my son," Mr Goldman was heard to yell from inside the compound. Even once they had made it inside, Sean looked on as a shouting match reportedly broke out with Congressman Smith calling the lead Brazilian lawyer Sergio Tostes a "kidnapper".

Finally, upstairs in the consulate, Sean, with the grandmother still at his side, was reintroduced to the father from whom he had been separated for more than half of his life. "When David came into the room, Sean was speechless," Silvana Bianchi said later. "I said to Sean that David will take care of you forever and make the best of it."

Although Mr Goldman told NBC News that he would welcome supervised visits by the grandmother in New Jersey, the family in Brazil complained that no formal agreement was drawn up.

The Goldman case had become a serious irritation in the diplomatic relationship of the two countries. Mr Obama raised it during a meeting in September with his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Mrs Clinton had also spoken out in support of Mr Goldman and the US Congress had held back from initiating a new trade agreement.

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