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Falls dad seeks kidnapped child Ex-wife is in prison for taking daughter to native Jamaica

Somewhere in Jamaica, presumably in the care of her maternal grandmother, 7-year-old Tageana Griffith finds herself in the middle of an ugly fight, a custody battle turned international kidnapping.

No one is absolutely certain where the Niagara Falls girl is, but they know she's not with her Jamaican-born mother, who is serving 18 months in federal prison for kidnapping, or her American father, who is fighting to get her back.

What they do know is that father and daughter have been separated for two years, and there's no sign of her coming home to the Falls.

"It's like a roller coaster ride," said Tigen Griffith, the father. "Sometimes I get emotional. Sometimes I get angry. Sometimes, I'm even happy because I try to stay optimistic."

Tageana, who was kidnapped by her mother in June 2010, is believed to be in Jamaica, although prosecutors are quick to note that the reports of her whereabouts are unconfirmed.

The search for Tageana, who was born in Jamaica but later moved here and became a U.S. citizen, is the latest chapter in a rare type of case in Buffalo -- international parental kidnapping.

While unusual here, international parental abductions have become common enough that the U.S. State Department now has an office dedicated to helping parents find their children.

The problem is big enough that a Hague Convention in 1980 produced an international treaty governing how countries deal with cross-border kidnappings. Unfortunately for Tigen Griffith, Jamaica never signed the treaty.

"I can't imagine, as a parent, not knowing what is happening with your child on a daily basis," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Fauzia K. Mattingly, the federal prosecutor in the kidnapping case. "We don't even know for sure that she's with the grandmother."

Or if she's in good health. Or if she's in school. Or if she's in safe hands.

The court case ended in late March with Tricia Griffith, the girl's mother, sentenced to 18 months in prison for kidnapping. She faces deportation once she is released.

Normally, prosecutors would welcome such a sentence, but this one came with a caveat -- the judge stopped short of ordering Tricia Griffith to find the child and bring her back to the United States.

"It's definitely not a win-win for the government because the girl is still missing," Mattingly said. "Bringing the girl back was important."

Tricia Griffith's lawyers -- she's represented by the Public Defender's Office -- would not comment on the case but in court papers outlined why they felt the courts should deny the government's request that the girl and father be reunited.

In court papers, Tricia Griffith accuses her ex-husband of neglect and abuse and suggests he went so far as to change the locks on their Falls home and throw out her and Tageana's belongings when they previously traveled to Jamaica.

The mother's lawyers included a photo of the young girl's clothing in a garbage can as part of their presentence report to U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara.

They also detailed Tigen Griffith's alleged womanizing and suggested he has a history of trying to intimidate and humiliate his ex-wife.

"According to Tricia, Tigen would push her when he got angry, bang on the door and curse her, and demand, 'Why don't you go home?' " her lawyers said in the papers.

Tigen Griffith denies the allegations and says his ex-wife was trying to bolster her case against him before her sentencing. "It's painful," he said of the allegations against him. "It helps her build a better case, but there's no proof."

He also countered her allegations with some of his own, including an accusation that she was unfaithful.

Caught in the middle is Tageana, who finds herself a poster child for victims of parental kidnapping, with her photo on the website of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Mattingly said the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica have tried to intervene on Tageana's behalf but have been thwarted every step of the way.

The effort included a visit by Tigen Griffith and U.S. marshals to the grandmother's home outside Montego Bay in late 2010. What they found was an empty home. The grandmother had apparently been tipped off to the unannounced visit.

"I can't begin to express my frustration," Tigen Griffith said of the government's efforts on his behalf. "I feel like they've tried but haven't done enough."

How Tageana ended up in Jamaica is one of the chapters in this story that bothers him the most.

After he and his wife divorced in 2009 -- they were married three years earlier when Tageana was 2 -- the judge handling the case gave them joint custody.

That same year, Tricia Griffith took her daughter back to Jamaica and, according to prosecutors, spent the summer there without her husband's knowledge or permission.

When she returned, the courts took Tageana's passport but gave it to her mother in June 2010. Prosecutors say she kidnapped the child a few days later and secretly took her to Jamaica.

Tricia Griffith attempted to return to the United States a few months later and was arrested at JFK Airport in New York City.

"The sad part is my daughter wasn't with her," said Tigen Griffith.

Not everyone who knows the family thinks Tricia Griffith is the only one to blame.

In their presentencing memo to Arcara, her lawyers tried to make the case that their client is a good mother who did what she had to do to protect her child.

The memo included a wide range of letters from friends and family attesting to Tricia Griffith's love and dedication to Tageana, a 19-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter.

"I have never written a letter to a judge on behalf of an inmate," wrote Yvonne Fertall, a minister at the Chautauqua County Jail. "But I am pleased to do for Patricia Griffith."

Like many of the others who wrote letters, including Tricia Griffith's two other children, Fertall encouraged the judge to talk with the defendant in hopes of getting to know her.

"We all know crap and falsehood when we hear it," Fertall told the judge. "Beyond her endearing accent and a smile that lights up the room, this girl does not disappoint. She is genuine in her goals for the future."

Cases of international parental kidnapping are unusual in Western New York. There's a second case in federal court right now, but lawyers on both sides can't recall many previous cases involving cross-border abductions by parents.

For Tigen Griffith, a mechanic with United Airlines, it's little solace knowing his plight is unusual for this region.

"This is not about me or my losses," he told Arcara when his ex-wife was sentenced. "This is about Tageana and what she has lost."

"Not only has she been deprived of precious bonding time with both parents," he added, "she is growing up without the individual attention that children need to prosper and succeed in life."

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com