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December 30th, 2011 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
One of the strangest custody cases I’ve ever encountered took yet another weird twist yesterday.  Kristen Ruggiero died in her New Hampshire prison cell.  Read about it here (Union Leader, 12/28/11).  She died just hours after the state’s Supreme Court upheld her convictions on 12 counts of perjury and related felonies.  Ruggiero had been sentenced to 7 – 14 years in prison.  She was also facing 21 more criminal charges stemming from allegations of lying in her first criminal case.  The cause of her death is not yet known.

My heart goes out to her daughter Meghan, who’s only nine, and who has now lost her mother.  To be sure, Kristen wasn’t much of a mother and she wouldn’t have been able to do much for her daughter from a prison cell, but to a nine-year-old, a mother’s death is a terrible blow, whoever the mother is and however her death occurs.

Kristen Ruggiero was the ex-wife of Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer, Jeffrey Ruggiero.  During their divorce and custody battle over their daughter Meghan, Kristen accused Jeffrey of sending her threatening text messages.  Jeff was arrested and charged.  Kristen requested and received from the family court a restraining order that, among other things, prohibited Jeff from possessing a firearm.  That meant he would have had to resign from the Coast Guard.

Kristen then presented Jeff with a choice – continue fighting for custody of Meghan and lose your military career, or relinquish your rights to your daughter and keep your career.  Jeff, believing that, after his divorce, Kristen would allow him little or no time with Meghan anyway, opted to keep his job.  He signed the documents her attorney had drawn up terminating his parental rights.

Then, police figured out that Kristen had been lying all along.  She’d sent the threatening messages to herself.  She was charged with a variety of felonies including perjury and obstruction of justice for which she was found guilty and incarcerated.  That’s the verdict that was just upheld by the New Hampshire Supreme Court.  One of Kristen’s partners in crime, Brendan Bisbee, was also convicted of perjury just last week.

But in the middle of that whirl of legal events, Kristen did a strange thing – she filed suit to adopt Meghan, her own biological daughter.  What’s even stranger is that a court approved her request.  Now, I know what you’re thinking.  How can a parent adopt her own child?  She already has full parental rights, so how is that legally possible?  And, in order to adopt a child, don’t the parents’ rights need to be terminated first?  So how did Kristen terminate her own rights and then adopt the same child?

Well, all of those are good questions to which I don’t have the answer.  Suffice it to say that she did adopt Meghan despite being her biological mother, none of whose rights had yet been terminated when she did it.  As a sidelight to the entire fiasco, I’d say the judge in that case needs to be thoroughly investigated.

But, with Jeff’s rights terminated and Kristen in jail and later in prison, the issue arose of who would care for Meghan who is now nine.  Kristen appointed her parents to be the girl’s guardians.  As her mother, whether adoptive or biological, she had the right to do that.

But now Kristen is dead and no longer has the power to decide who should care for Meghan.  Moreover, Meghan’s grandmother, Elizabeth McDonald, faces several felony charges stemming from her assisting Kristen in her campaign of lies against Jeffrey.

All of that adds up to this (as far as I can tell):  Jeffrey should get custody of his daughter.  Yes, he relinquished his parental rights, but that was brought about by fraud and duress and should in no way be allowed to remain in effect.  Up until the day Kristen died, Jeffrey has been fighting her adoption of their daughter.  That case is not yet finally resolved.

The only people with any claim at all to custody of Meghan are her grandparents, one of whom faces multiple felony charges.  Her grandfather is well into his sixties and is probably not able to care for a nine-year-old girl on his own.

Then there’s Jeffrey who’s her biological father and who’s never stopped trying to get her back despite being thwarted by a court system that shows every sign of being rigged against him.  As far as I can see, the only thing standing in the way of Jeffrey’s regaining custody is his relinquishment of his rights.  Due to its having been obtained by fraud that has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, you’d think that would be easy enough to nullify.

The bottom line?  Jeffrey Ruggiero should have full custody of his daughter.  But the New Hampshire family courts have to date behaved in such a bizarre fashion in this case, I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

The next few months should continue to fascinate in a case that’s still one of the strangest I’ve ever seen.

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