John Lee Smith keeps a bag ready, just in case.
It's packed with Spiderman watches, a dinosaur hairbrush, new clothes and action figures — everything his three sons would need on a trip back home.
Smith hasn't seen or heard from the boys in more than a year, since, he said, their mother, Francina Fernandez, abducted them and fled to the Philippines.
Since then, his life has been frozen in place, his San Diego apartment a monument to their memory. Photographs of Keoni, 5, and twins Lance and Mason, 4, fill the rooms. Their stuffed animals sit on his bed. Their art projects — snowmen and spiders — cover his bedroom walls.
"There is not even a word to describe the anguish I feel," Smith said. "When am I going to see my boys again? Is it going to be five years? Is it going to be five months?"
Hundreds of American parents face a similar plight, fighting from within the United States to bring home children they say were kidnapped and taken abroad by the other parent. The U.S. State Department is handling roughly 1,000 international parental kidnapping cases, including seven that involve children taken to the Philippines.
Many parents left behind face linguistic, cultural, geographical and legal barriers. Often, the spouse is a citizen, or can become a citizen, of the country to which he or she has fled and is entitled to that country's protection.
In the United States, Fernandez faces federal charges of international parental kidnapping that could land her behind bars for up to three years.
But FBI agents in Manila do not know exactly where she is. And even if they locate her, agents lack the authority to arrest her or take the boys. Fernandez has reclaimed her Philippine citizenship.
The Philippines sees parental kidnapping as a custody dispute, not a crime. And the country isn't party to the international treaty that created a process for resolving such disputes.
"Where does that country get the right to make decisions regarding my three little boys, who are U.S. citizens?" Smith asked. "The message they are sending out is, 'Kidnap your child and come to the Philippines' …. It's basically a safe haven."
The Philippine government says it cooperates with U.S. law enforcement and consular officials to locate children alleged to have been abducted and check on their welfare. The officials also can help negotiate a return. But in many cases, the decision on whether the children should be sent back to the parent in the United States falls to the courts.
"It's irresponsible to paint the Philippine government as … a coddler of criminals," said Patricia Paez, spokeswoman for the Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C. "A parent could accuse the other parent of kidnapping, but that's for the courts to determine."
The last time Smith saw his sons was Oct. 28, 2004, his 47th birthday.
A week later, Fernandez, who was living with her parents in nearby Chula Vista, told him over the phone that she planned to take the boys on vacation to New Zealand. Smith called his attorney, who went to court to object to the trip.
It was one of many conflicts between the couple, who had joint custody of the boys. They split up when the twins were a year old, and the acrimony had been growing ever since, with arguments over child support, visitation and day care.
Smith blamed cultural differences — and her parents — for the breakup and later disputes.
"I knew she was going to abduct the boys," Smith said. "There was not one ounce of doubt in my mind."
A judge ordered Fernandez not to take the children out of the state. He also ordered her to surrender their passports within 24 hours. She didn't.
A few days later, Fernandez's mother reported to police that her daughter and grandsons had disappeared.