After about seven years, several court battles, cross-Atlantic searches and the help of NBC-TV's Unsolved Mysteries, Carolyn Shaffer Smith has her sons back.
And when the two boys finally appeared on the doorstep of this stranger they were supposed to call "Mom," life didn't just fall back into place.
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy, but it's worse than I expected," Mrs. Smith told report-ers in Texas after she was reunited with the boys in mid-January.
The day after they were reunited, the problem became clear to Mrs. Smith.
The youngest, 11-year-old Christopher, was shy but polite. The older boy, Charles, 13, wanted nothing to do with her.
"I definitely have been blamed for all of this," she said. "Basically they've been told I'm an unfit mother that has a drug problem, which is absolutely not true."
Mrs. Smith was not only up against her ex-husband, but his family _ headed by the wealthy and prominent Charles William "Chick" Smith Sr., former owner of Chick Smith Ford of Clearwater, where he was once a familiar face on local television.
In court records in Houston and Atlanta, Mrs. Smith claims that Chick Smith helped his son, Charles William "Chuck" Smith Jr., kidnap the boys in the mid-1980s and keep them away from her for years. She claims that he bankrolled Chuck Smith's globe-trotting lifestyle that kept him a step ahead of the law.
In fact, in a precedent-setting case, Carolyn Smith was awarded $53-million in damages in a 1985 lawsuit against Chick Smith and other relatives, who the jury said acted in a conspiracy to abduct the children. That amount has now risen to $100-million because of interest, said her attorney, Robert Donato.
Chick Smith and his wife, Pat, who now live in Georgia, have since declared personal bankruptcy and the case still is tied up in court.
"Money can't replace what Carolyn's lost," Donato said. "We're just trying to show them that because they have money, they can't control everything."
No criminal charges have been filed against Chick Smith. Pat Smith was acquitted in 1987 of charges of interfering in child custody, according to Stanley Schneider, Chuck Smith's lawyer.
For many, the Smith case is a classic example of who is victimized in custody battles and parental kidnappings.
"The kids," Donato said Friday. "It's such a shame."
Schneider said Chuck Smith kidnapped the children because he thought his ex-wife was an unfit mother and he was concerned for their safety. "Everything he's done has been for the boys and their best interest," Schneider said. "Everything he has done has been out of love."
Smith and his boys traveled around the world before settling in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where they've been for most of the past three and a half years.
"I know that when the boys were in Mexico, from everyone I talked to, they were happy, productive and extremely content," Schneider said.
In fact, Carolyn Smith told reporters in January that the boys missed Mexico and thought being in Texas was only temporary.
A month after their return from their yearslong odyssey with their father, Christopher and Charles are beginning to get to know their mother and awaiting their father's trial on charges that he interfered with child custody.
The boys and their mother aren't talking to the news media right now _ they're busy getting reacquainted, Donato said.
"It's getting better every day," he said. "But understandably, she wants to be with her kids and try to get a semblance of a normal life back. She knew it would be difficult. She knew she couldn't just show up and take full status as a mom again."
Meanwhile, the boys' father is in jail in Houston, held without bail.
His trial is expected to take place by early summer.
"This isn't your typical criminal case," Schneider said Friday. "It brings to the forefront the issue of father's rights.The case is going to create a lot of controversy."
_ Information from The Houston Post was used in this report.