From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
One day I had a wife and son and what I thought was a happy home. The next, I had nothing," says David Goldman. His life collapsed in June 2004, when his wife, Bruna, took their 4-year-old son Sean from their home in New Jersey to visit family in her native Brazil. When he saw them off for what was supposed to be a two-week trip, says Goldman, "Bruna, Sean and I did our sign for 'I love you,'" a touch of the index finger to the eye and heart. Days later Bruna phoned to tell David that she wasn't returning; she wanted a divorce and to live in Brazil with sole custody of Sean. "I was completely blindsided," says Goldman, who would not see his son again for nearly five years—not even after Bruna died last August.

Her death set off a new tug-of-war for Sean. On one side, his biological father, on the other, a stepfather and extended maternal family who love Sean and have possession—if not international law—on their side. But now after battling in U.S. and Brazilian courts, Goldman may have reason to be hopeful. On March 4 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that she had brought Goldman's case to "the highest levels of the Brazilian government." Said Clinton: "There is no reason why David Goldman should not get his child back."

Long before Clinton's involvement, Goldman, 42, had made seven trips to Brazil to try to bring Sean home. But judges ruled against him, while Bruna's family, he says, refused to let him see his son until a judge ordered them to do so in February. Sean is now 8 and living in an upscale neighborhood in Rio with his stepfather João Paulo Lins e Silva, a lawyer whom Bruna married in 2007. Bruna's relatives say they would have made Sean available, but David didn't seek him out; David disputes this. "I've missed so much," says Goldman, who has not remarried. "His first tooth falling out, playing ball, homework."

When Bruna, 34, died after giving birth to Sean's half-sister Chiara, Goldman thought this tragic turn meant he would finally be able to bring Sean home. But even being his son's sole biological parent did not immediately help his cause, as courts recognized the paternal role played by Sean's stepfather and gave temporary custody to Lins e Silva. "My love for [Sean] is no different than the love I feel for little Chiara," wrote Lins e Silva in a letter published in a Rio newspaper. "Here he is loved and wants to stay." (Officials in Brazil's Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment while the case is pending.)

How did a custody squabble reach this level of international diplomacy? There are at least 1,900 similar situations involving U.S.-born children abducted overseas by one of their parents. Goldman's cause was taken up by U. S. congressmen Chris Smith and Rush Holt. Friends run a petition Web site, bringseanhome.org. But the battle is, at heart, his alone. "His love buoys him to continue the fight," says Rep. Smith. Goldman, who still lives in the four-bedroom house he shared with his ex-wife and son, piled up $360,000 in legal and travel bills. He is paying those bills through his fishing charter tours and modeling jobs. "There's no such thing as a typical day," he says. "I am consumed with pain over the loss."

Half a world away Sean, too, is suffering. His Brazilian relatives argue that with Bruna's death, he needs continuity more than ever. "He adores his school, he has a lot of friends, he's completely adapted," says Bruna's brother Luca Bianchi. "He is a happy boy, a well-educated boy. We want him to feel he has a secure environment."

So, of course, does Goldman, who says he can offer that at their Tinton Falls, N.J., home with the river running behind it where he taught Sean to fish and canoe. To this day he has "no idea" why his wife, once "the love of my life," left with their child. Yet Bianchi says his sister "was really unhappy" in the marriage. When she died, says Goldman, "I felt terrible, and I felt badly for her family." But, he says, "I'm Sean's father and he needs me."

Last month, under orders from a Brazilian judge, Goldman was at last allowed two six-hour visits with Sean at a picnic site in a gated apartment complex in Rio. "It was all I could do not to sprint toward him. I squeezed him and told him how much I love him, how happy I was to see him and how much I missed him. And Sean said, 'Me too.'" The boy, in his limited English, also had a tough question for his dad: "How come you never came to see me?" David recalls, "the anguish on his face when he asked me that ... my heart just melted."

Though Goldman wanted nothing more than to bring him home, Sean remains in Lins e Silva's custody. "To say I'm optimistic or hopeful—I can't. I can't be hopeful until Sean is sitting next to me here at home."

  • Contributors:
  • Dom Phillips/São Paulo.