On Christmas Eve, a New Jersey resident with a Jewish surname, David Goldman, was finally reunited with his 9-year-old son, Sean, who had been living in Brazil for the past five years, the object of a grotesque custody battle that would have made even Franz Kafka cringe.
In 2004, Sean, who was born in the United States, was abducted by his mother who took a purported vacation to her native Brazil, then called her husband to announce that she was divorcing him and keeping their son. This set off a series of lawsuits in both countries, along with diplomatic maneuvers that resulted in the United States threatening Brazil with trade consequences if the boy was not returned to his father.
Ironically, Sean's mother died last year, but Brazil's legal authorities still seemed to prefer the boy's Brazilian grandmother and stepfather as custodial guardians rather than accede to the rights of his natural father. This week, the chief judge of the Brazilian Supreme Court finally ruled that Sean must be returned to his father in the United States. For Mr. Goldman, a 5-year nightmare has now become either a late Hanukkah present or Christmas arriving just in time.
This case recalls a similar international incident where a mother exercised her apparent right to kidnap her son to the horrified detriment of her husband, the child's father. In 1999, 6-year-old Elian Gonzales was taken by his mother from their native Cuba and, with nothing more buoyant than inner tubes, perilously set sail for the United States. The problem was: She never consulted her husband whether he approved of either this dangerous voyage or the kidnapping of his son.
Elian's mother died at sea but the boy miraculously survived, ending up with his mother's Miami relatives (some with criminal records). They claimed Elian as their own and refused to return him to his father in Cuba. Indeed, many Cubans in Miami with a long history of anti-Communist hysteria, seemed to believe that Elian belonged to everyone -- except his natural father, who wept at his son's empty bed for an entire year while lawyers and diplomats debated whether a father's rights to his child could be so easily trumped by either the wishes of a dead mother, the cynical interests of remote relatives, or the competing claims of ideological politics.
Eventually, federal SWAT agents stormed the home of Elian Gonzales' Miami relatives, who had defied court orders, and returned Elian to his father.
The moral and legal question that the cases of Sean Goldman and Elian Gonzalez both present is the following: Would the outcomes have been different, or would they have been decided more quickly and urgently, had the kidnappers been fathers and the world was forced to witness bereft mothers desperately waiting for the return of their children?
I think we know the answer. When it comes to child custody laws and perceptions, the double standard against fathers is unsurpassed in hypocrisy and prejudice.
Before we luxuriate too comfortably in the Hallmark Hall of Fame happy ending of the Goldman father-son reunion (in Disney World, of all places), let us not forget that in more domesticated custody battles, removed from the glare of international intrigue and spectacle, fathers are routinely treated as second, if not third-class citizens when it comes to the custodial rights of their children in the aftermath of divorce.
The law in virtually all American states is neutral, favoring neither parent nor gender in circumstances of divorce. But the way those laws are applied, however, by unprogressive, paternalistic, and unimaginative family law judges across America is anything but neutral. Unless the mother is either a drug addict or has a history of severe mental problems, custody will routinely be granted to her--especially in cases of young children--regardless of the demonstrated capacity and commitment of fathers who wish to become the primary caregivers of their children.
Feminism may have largely shattered the glass ceiling when it comes to equal opportunity for women in the workplace. Ironically, however, the same cannot be said of men who seek to stay at home and raise their children. Breadwinners are not permitted to become caretakers, nor can they challenge the anachronistic presumption that a woman's place is at home with her children (or at work but with a nanny caring for the children). The glass ceiling that women face is at least breakable. Men discover after divorce that the custodial role of fathers is sealed off with cement.
Perhaps mothers actually possess more muscle than feminists, or maybe true feminists have simply not shown the moral courage to fight on behalf of fathers and end the inequity that is so rampant in child custody cases.
More people should have been outraged by the tragic circumstances of Messrs. Goldman and Gonzalez: Two men forced to endure a separation from their children that would have been deemed morally intolerable had they been women.