Saturday, July 19, 2003
By Ted Roelofs
The Grand Rapids Press
Because he has multiple sclerosis, Nolan Scoggins was sure a judge would understand why he cannot work -- and therefore cannot pay child support.
A few minutes later, he was on his way to Kent County Jail.
"I went down there thinking I did the right thing," said Scoggins, 26, a Grand Rapids resident sent to jail in June for failure to pay child support for his two young children.
"I should never have been arrested. Grand Rapids should never have had mug shots of me."
Scoggins said the stress of that ordeal -- coupled with the heat of the holding cell where he was lodged -- knocked him off his feet for several days.
He was bailed out of jail after about five hours by his fiancee, Jennifer Westerhof.
His case has drawn the attention of Disability Advocates of Kent County, which maintains that Scoggins' ordeal reveals flaws in the Friend of the Court system in dealing with disability issues.
Christina Tilney, a social worker for the nonprofit group, said Scoggins' case is not the first in which Friend of the Court has ignored the rights of the disabled.
"I believe the system screwed up," Tilney said. "They need to read and understand the Americans with Disabilities Act. When I heard this happened to Nolan, I was just flabbergasted."
But the attorney for Scoggins' wife, Kelli Scoggins, maintained that multiple sclerosis does not excuse Scoggins from providing for his two children.
"This is about two parents having an obligation to provide some kind of support their children," Diann Landers said. "I'm not saying that he doesn't have MS. But there are also things that people can do otherwise."
Scoggins was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1997. Since then, it has become increasingly difficult for him to hold jobs due to the advances of the neuromuscular disease, which can lead to paralysis and premature death. Scoggins said he has been hospitalized several times.
Scoggins was married to Kelli Scoggins in October 1997, and they have two children, Kayla, 5, and Nevin, 2.
Kelli filed for divorce in June 2002 and she was later granted custody. Scoggins was ordered to pay $161.49 a week in child support.
Scoggins said he was in management training at Wendy's at the time. Kelli Scoggins also was granted an extension in June of a previous personal protection order against Scoggins, based on her
statement that he was stalking her and driving past her house. Scoggins maintains he is concerned about the welfare of his children.
In the past few years, Scoggins has held several jobs, including as a security guard, a retail worker, a cook and manager for a mattress distributor.
Scoggins said he had another physical setback in December, after working a 17-hour shift from the two jobs he held at the time. Afterward, he was told not to work, he said.
His attorney filed in January for a reduction in his payments, including in his motion a medical note dated Dec. 20, 2002, saying "Nolan needs to be off work for the time being due to his MS. It is unclear at this time when he can return to work."
Louise O'Donnell, a nurse practitioner at a Grand Rapids neurology practice, wrote the note. O'Donnell is also coordinator for the West Michigan Multiple Sclerosis Clinic.
Scoggins said he shared that note with Denise Kimbrel, a supervisor for Friend of the Court. Kimbrel could not be reached for comment.
O'Donnell said it appears that Scoggins' biggest challenge is overcoming the overwhelming fatigue that can accompany multiple sclerosis.
"People with MS who struggle with fatigue describe it as if you are walking through mud up to your neck," she said.
In the five months since that December note, Scoggins was assessed more than $640 a month in child support payments, putting him nearly $5,000 in arrears.
Scoggins said he has been turned down once for federal disability payments but has resubmitted his application.
He recalled that when he appeared June 25 before Kent County Circuit Judge Nanaruth Carpenter, he had just a few minutes to make his case. He said he was assigned a public defender at the last minute.
"He stood up and said, 'Well, my client is disabled,' and that was it."
Carpenter, Scoggins recalled, "basically said my disability wasn't an excuse. She said either you pay the $500 today or you go to jail."
Kimbrel submitted a case assessment dated June 18 to Carpenter, which noted a letter from O'Donnell "indicates that Nolan has struggled with multiple sclerosis over the past few years ... ." It also recommended that Scoggins' child support be reduced to $73 a week as of January 3, 2003, and to $11 per week as of March.
Kelli Scoggins said she needs more than that to get by, adding that she believes her husband can get at least part-time work.
The Grand Rapids resident lives on about $300 a week from working 35 hours a week as a telecommunications consultant.
"I have a hard time making ends meet and paying my bills without support from him," she said.
Carpenter said she could not recall whether she had Kimbrel's assessment before her when she sent Scoggins to jail.
A hearing is set for July 25 to assess whether Scoggins' payments should
be reduced and on the custody status of the children.
Copyright © 2003, Grand Rapids Press