By Kathleen Casper.
I met a little boy once who stole my heart with his sparkly eyes and giant, dimply grin. He reached out and took hold of my fingers in the middle of a dimly lit bowling alley, then, shaking my hand with the confidence of a business man, he introduced himself formally.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I replied, grinning at the four foot tall child in his under-armor shirt and blue jeans. At that second, I completely understood the Renee Zellweger line from the movie Jerry Maguire: this guy already “had me at hello.”
Every minute of the last several months had led us to him—the 12 weeks of foster care training classes, the purchases and improvements around the house to be compliant with the state laws, the health department visits, the doctors’ visits to make sure we were healthy, the reference letters we had to obtain from friends and neighbors, and the late night discussions about making sure we were ready. And here I was, staring at what I knew immediately was our perfect match—the foster child who needed a home like ours, and whom I could tell was meant to be our son. I knew immediately I wanted to get him home as soon as possible and love him forever.
What I hadn’t expected was that this wonderful foster child would also end up being one of the brightest, most gifted children I’d ever met, even after my years of teaching highly capable children every day.
It was something that took us by surprise. Gifted kids in foster care? This little guy was diagnosed as gifted with an extremely high IQ, and the more I learned about him, the more I realized how hard it must be to be gifted in a severely dysfunctional system like the American foster care system.
The more involved we got in the mess of the system in our attempts to adopt this child, the more we realized that this bright child was not alone. There were several kids who seemed to exhibit gifted characteristics in the group home where he was living, and the stories he told us about other kids he had met in other places made us realize the system may be harboring many more gifted children. And all of the ones we heard stories about were struggling in a system that obviously did not understand them. Placement after placement fails for these gifted kids, as caregivers find themselves truly unprepared to understand or to respond to their gifted traits. Case managers incorrectly classify these kids as severely behaviorally disabled, ADHD, or worse, because of outbursts and anxiety issues. Manipulation and arguing, and tantrums seem asynchronous and confusing to the untrained providers. Without advocates like family members to fight for these children’s rights, the schools may not see past the behavioral issues, and gifted services may never reach these invisible children.
It makes sense, really, that gifted kids could end up in foster care. The odds are stacked that way with three to five percent of the population being gifted and the fact that unfortunate events happen across all divisions of wealth and race and status. And gifted adults sometimes struggle with the same things that pull families apart in the foster care system. For example, some studies suggest that a higher percentage of prisoners are gifted than would be expected from the total percentage of the gifted in society. These gifted parents often have gifted children who then need foster care. The worst family cases result in parental rights being terminated and the children put up for adoption. The lucky ones are placed in homes where, hopefully, someone will put up with the initial challenges of the child’s testing boundaries to the limit and the need for extra tough parenting skills that even birth parents of gifted kids may find hard to practice at times.
Finding people who understand gifted children is a tough task. The system is not set up to screen foster parents for intelligence, and there is no formal training on gifted characteristics. Gifted foster children either get lucky and find a home where they are accepted and supported, or they struggle through multiple placements and suffer the consequences of abandonment and other issues that are likely made much worse from seeing the unfair and harsh side of the world through the eyes of a highly intelligent child.
What can we do as people who care about gifted children? If you can get licensed to be a foster parent, you can directly affect the life of a child in need. Some states are looking for long term commitments, but people are also needed to provide respite care for children on short term placements. If you can’t foster a child now but still want to help, you can help a local foster parent association with lobbying for the rights of foster children, or talk with foster care agencies and foster parents about resources such as SENG, where they can turn for more information about gifted kids. Any help is appreciated. After meeting our little guy, I realized that these kids don’t ask for anything, but if we don’t start helping them ask for what they need, no one else is going to do it for them.
We are in the process of finalizing our adoption. Our amazing little boy is finally in his forever home and doing wonderfully, fitting in with our biological kids, who are also gifted, and driving us crazy with all of their questions and energy! We wouldn’t change a thing about him, and he is right where he belongs, with a family who understands him and loves him, unconditionally.
L. Kathleen Casper, Esq. is a Highly Capable Program educator in the Tacoma School District and a part time family law attorney with a practice focusing on children and families. She recently worked for several years at a gifted magnet school in Pinellas County, Florida where she specialized in teaching writing among other subjects. Ms. Casper is a freelance writer of articles in national and international magazines, many about gifted children. She enjoyed participating in gifted and talented programs as a child and has four children of her own who have been in gifted programs as well (and their family is in the process of adopting a gifted foster child.) She is passionate about children’s issues and an advocate for those in the foster care system. Ms. Casper has received many awards for her teaching including two Florida Governor’s Awards and a semifinalist award for Pinellas County Outstanding Educator. She is active in her community as a volunteer in legal, governmental and educational organizations, and is a trainer of parents and teachers on issues including keeping gifted children engaged and supported at home and in the classroom.