UNO coach Mark Slessinger and wife must give up foster child

Editor’s note: The identities of Baby J and Baby H remain confidential, and the reasons they have been placed in foster care have been withheld for this story.

NEW ORLEANS — In the coming weeks, a profound change will occur inside the University of New Orleans men’s basketball program, particularly to the lives of third-year coach Mark Slessinger and his wife, Toni.

On June 25, they must say goodbye to one of their own, Baby J, a beautiful 17-month-old foster child who has lived the past year in safe harbor with the Slessingers and in the bosom of the Privateers’ athletic family.

On that day, Baby J will be reunited with her biological parents in accordance with the courts and the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services. Baby J came to the Slessingers because of parental neglect, a clinical, systemic word used to camouflage the real reason for the initial court-ordered separation.

In mid-April, Baby J’s rehabilitated biological mother and father were awarded full-time custody of their child, removing the Slessingers from the rearing and nurturing picture altogether. The system is designed for Baby J to return to a world far better and safer from whence she came.

“This is very tough for Mark and Toni,’’ said Shantell Francis, a child welfare specialist for the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services who has handled Baby J’s case file with the Slessingers. “They have been a caretaker for this child for nearly a year and now she must go home to her parents. So it’s a tough thing for them.’’

In the meantime, the Slessingers have welcomed a second foster child into their home, Baby H, a 14-month-old foster child who arrived on the scene April 18, about the time news had arrived of Baby J’s pending departure.

So for the next 30 days, Baby J will have a baby brother, though brief as it is.

After months of mulling over the idea, the Slessingers decided to share their story in conjunction with May being “National Foster Care Month,’’ an annual campaign that raises awareness about the urgent needs of more than 380,000 children and youths under 18 in the foster care system nationwide. The hope is that citizens from every walk of life will get involved as foster or adoptive parents, volunteers, mentors employers or in other ways.

“Losing Baby J is not easy,’’ said Toni, dabbing at tears with a tissue as she spoke. “But there are a lot more good times than bad. I know we will be heartbroken when she leaves, but this experience will make her the awesome person we hope she will become.

“We got her at an age when we knew we would become attached, and we wanted to treat her like we would our own child. We just have to pray for the best, that when she does go back to her parents that they’ll keep fostering a good relationship with her. We pray that they have learned from their situation so they can be the very best parents they can be. Every child deserves that.’’

The Slessingers said they considered foster caring and adoption early on in their marriage after trying unsuccessfully to have children of their own. But it wasn’t until Slessinger became the Privateers’ head coach in June 2011, and they moved to New Orleans, that they put their plan into motion.

“More than anything, we want to be parents but we haven’t been able to get pregnant,’’ said Slessinger, a 39-year-old native of Bloomington, Ind. “So when everything began to fall in place with UNO, we became very prayerful and thoughtful about going through the foster care process.’’

On July 4, the Slessingers held a cookout at their lakefront home for the UNO basketball team. A day later, only hours after being informed that they would become foster parents for an infant girl, Baby J arrived at their doorstep.

They received Baby H in similar fashion April 18.

Each child welfare case is different, Francis said. In the Slessingers’ case, they wanted to adopt Baby J, just as they hope one day to adopt Baby H. But they know the biological parents can regain the custodial rights within the year of the separation if they complete the court-mandated rehabilitation.

“Would we love to continue to raise her? Sure, we would love it,’’ Slessinger said. “But that’s not the way this thing is set up. We knew that this was always a possibility — the hurt and the brokenhearted feelings we have now. But that’s OK because we have reaped more than we have sewn, believe me.

“But, this story isn’t about me and my wife. We’re very common people who are blessed to be united with these special kids. Hopefully, people will hear or read our story and will want to get involved and help out kids just like these who are in a tough spot in their lives through no fault of their own.’’

Slessinger said the ongoing foster care experience has made him a better man, a better husband and a better coach, and hopefully has prepared him to become a father to his own child/children one day.

Slessinger said he believes his players also have become better people because of the life experiences learned by being around Baby J and Baby H.

“I broke down in front of my team when I told them that we would be losing (Baby J),’’ Slessinger said. “They see the kids at practice, they see the kids at team meals and team functions and they get to interact with them.

“I want them to see that I’m vulnerable. I want to be as transparent as I can be about this because this is what life is all about. I’m human and I go through stuff just like they do. In the end, our goal here is we want each one of these players to be the best dad, the best husband, the best employee, the best citizen he can be.’’

UNO Athletic Director Derek Morel echoed that sentiment, saying the Slessingers have epitomized the true meaning of family for everyone connected with the school and athletic department.

“I remember the night they got (Baby H),’’ Morel said. “They went shopping and bought all this stuff that he didn’t have. It’s got to be tough for them, losing (Baby J) like this. Those children have touched a lot of lives in their brief time around us. If nothing else, hopefully this will change her biological parents for the better and change the way she was raised before. We can only hope and pray that’s the case.’’

Toni Slessinger said foster caring has taught her a lot about herself, some things she didn’t know while reinforcing others that she did.

“I know now that we can be parents, pretty good parents I think,’’ she said. “And I know now that it’s OK not to be perfect parents.’’

Tears again welled in her eyes when Mother’s Day came up in conversation.

“It was bittersweet knowing that I’m probably the only mom these kids know but they still aren’t mine,’’ she said. “That’s what I miss most, that we don’t have a kid to call our own yet. That’s the day I look forward to ... when we can adopt or when I finally get pregnant and have that kid that nobody can take from us.

“I still can’t enjoy Mother’s Day like other moms can. Maybe one day I will.’’