Sean Goldman: Will Custody Fight Over Boy Leave Scars?

Some child development experts fear for the 9-year-old's psychological health.

December 23, 2009, 5:04 PM

Dec. 24, 2009— -- The court case is over, and the ruling has been delivered. But as the drama in the case of Sean Goldman continues, some child development experts fear the pressures of the international custody battle could take a toll on the 9-year-old's psychological well being.

In an interview last week with ABC News correspondent Jeffrey Kofman, New Jersey father David Goldman said that the psychological trauma his son may have suffered during this lengthy, highly-publicized case is upsetting.

"There's a lot of things going through my mind," Goldman told Kofman. "My son's well being, and how he is. And all this pressure that's being put on him is upsetting and very sad."

Goldman also said that he felt his son was being psychologically abused by his deceased wife's family in Brazil.

"He can't live with this pressure," he told Kofman. "He spoke -- he already had spoken loud and clear to the Brazilian judicial system, to the Brazilian courts, to three appointed Brazilian court psychologists who evaluated him... He is being abused by those who are holding him."

While Sean Goldman's case is the latest high-profile custody battle to capture the nation's attention, it is far from the first. In 1999, there was the case of Elian Gonzales, the 6-year-old boy from Cuba whose custody saga became an international crisis.

And then there was the 2004 case involving former Playboy model Bridget Marks, who was locked in a high-profile court fight with millionaire casino executive John Aylsworth over the custody of their twin daughters, Amber and Scarlet. The girls were four years old at the time.

Today, Marks has custody of both girls. And she said she believes custody battles of this nature can have a real impact on the kids involved.

"I think it's harder on the children, because they don't have any control," she said, adding that her girls, now 10, are now both well-adjusted and are top performers in school.

"They do remember everything, but it's not something that we talk about because things now are amicable and quiet," she said. "I don't see any impact now."

Helping a Child Through a Tough Transition

Marks said that her children do see a court-appointed therapist – important, she said, since "the child has to have a neutral place where they can talk about their feelings."

"The adult has to put themselves aside and put the interests of the child ahead of their own.

"They have to realize that there's a human being involved here and they can't go in with a 'take no prisoners' or 'scorched earth' mentality."

It is a sentiment with which child development experts agreed.

"Of utmost importance is the need to protect this boy from feeling pulled between allegiances," said Rahil Briggs, director of Montefiore's Healthy Steps Program at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine's department of pediatrics in New York. "The adults in his life must work to put their own negative feelings aside and help this boy navigate his conflicting emotions related to loyalty, identity, and family member roles.

"While long-term psychological effects of this protracted battle are inevitable, the adults in his life have a very clear choice in terms of the way they handle the future: with his best interests and well-being in mind, or with other, more negative and self-centered goals."

Maintaining Relationships Important, Psychology Experts Say

The five-year, protracted custody case between David Goldman and the family of his deceased wife has left hurt feelings on both sides.

"I am concerned that this boy has to not only readjust to his dad and a new homeland and a new environment, but he also has to say goodbye to people who truly love him and people that he has been very close to," Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, Director at Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research, told ABC News. "I also am concerned that when you have such a bitter separation and divorce as his parents have had that it is very possible that this boy has heard many negative things about his father.

"It is going to take a while for him to readjust, and his father is going to have to be very patient in order to help."

Family therapist Terry Real told "Good Morning America" this morning that Sean is probably feeling fear at the moment and it could take him months or even years to adjust to his new life.

"He simply has no idea what he is getting into. It is going to be about love, love love," Real said, adding that David Goldman must accept the process his son is going through and be there for him.

Still, psychological experts said it would be best for him if he maintained relationships with both sides of his family.

"It is important to realize that this boy has attachments to both families -- his family in the U.S. and his family in Brazil," said Judith Myers-Walls, an associate professor and extension specialist at Purdue University's department of Child Development and Family Studies in West Lafayette, Ind. "As is the case in any instance of family disruption, there will be loss and grieving no matter what decisions are made."

Myers-Walls said that no matter how the case ends, the trauma of the process is inevitable. In addition to being separated from his father for five years, the boy has experienced the death of his mother and the constant conflict of a custody battle that has lasted for most of his life.

"This is not a sudden crisis in the middle of a steady and calm condition," she said, adding that international media attention may not help. "Hopefully, the families can remove themselves from the public eye and make decisions with the needs of the parents, children, and grandparents in mind without worrying about stirring up more international incidents."

The ultimate impact of the international custody battle on Sean Goldman may not be known for years. But Myers-Walls said there are steps the adults in the case may be able to take to make things better.

"This battle will have long-term effects if the adults do not come to peace with the decisions in some way," she said. "He is constantly caught in the middle as they express distrust, anger, and frustration with each other while he has attachments to all of them.

"The custody battle always will be a part of who he is, but that part could be interesting and growth-producing or it could be an oddity and destructive."

Koplewicz agreed. "I think we can only hope that going forward, people involved with this case will behave more adult-like, because that is what has to happen for this child's mental health."

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