Saturday, December 16, 2006

Father makes sacrifices to keep children out of foster care

The Chronicle season of sharing fund: Father's love overcomes tragedy
Car accident couldn't deter dad's drive for custody of kids
Buchanan, Wyatt. San Francisco Chronicle, Dec 15, 2006, pg B9.

Cornel Heslip knew he would lose many things after a paralyzing car crash on the Altamont Pass in 2004 -- his job, his ability to walk -- but he never imagined his three children would make that list.

While he was paralyzed and laid up in the hospital, Heslip's mother had to break the news to him: Child Protective Services had taken custody of his three children from their mother.

Heslip and the children's mother had split up and lived apart, and the authorities took the kids -- one who is Heslip's biological child and two he has helped rear since they were toddlers -- to a Stockton foster home. One month after the accident, he had to rebuild not just his own life, but also his family.

"In one shot, it was all wiped out," said Heslip, 48, who lives in Oakland and uses a motorized chair for mobility.

He began juggling the physical rehabilitation and therapy to reclaim his autonomy with parenting classes and other requirements to earn custody of the kids.

One major requirement was that he live somewhere big enough for the children, who are now 13, 12 and 8 years old. At the behest of an Oakland housing agency, Heslip asked for help from the Season of Sharing Fund. He received a $600 grant, which was enough for the deposit on a spacious, three-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a newly constructed building.

His children began living with him full time in June and are thriving in their new home. His oldest child, Delona Jacobs, received all As on her last report card, while his youngest is active in gymnastics at a nearby church. Marcel Jacobs, the 12-year- old, is doing well in school and in sports.

"Right now my job is them," Heslip said, though the kids help him, too. Marcel helps his father get in and out of his chair, and both he and his younger sister, 8-year-old Keyshauna Heslip, cut their father's hair.

"We've bonded so much more now because they understand the possibility that I may not walk. With God's blessing I may get a chance, but the reality is I'm paralyzed from the waist down," Heslip said.

"I keep him in check," quipped Marcel, who has a quick sense of humor.

Marvel Mills, who assisted Heslip in his housing search and with his Season of Sharing application, said Heslip was extremely committed to completing the tasks required to reclaim the children from foster care. His pre-injury salary meant he would receive disability payments large enough to take care of himself well in a smaller apartment, but Heslip did not do that.

"It's a lot to put up with, but he didn't want to see the children separated and was willing to go through anything to keep the siblings together," said Mills, a case manager for ECHO Housing in Oakland. Even in inclement weather, when many people skip appointments, Heslip would board the bus on his wheelchair, she said.

Heslip spends his days going to medical and rehabilitation appointments and getting anywhere he can in his chair. His mother serves as his caretaker and helps with the kids. He misses working and hopes he can learn to drive with his disability and revive his truck driving career.
His earnestly upbeat attitude sours only when he talks about the car crash.

"But again, I've got to thank God because I'm alive, first of all, and second of all I've got my kids," he said.

For information about the Season of Sharing fund or to donate, go to

Although an accident left him using a wheelchair, Cornel Heslip worked to gain custody of his kids, including Marcel Jacobs, 12, and Keyshauna Heslip, 8.