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Diplomats Face New Challenges Supporting Children With Special Needs Abroad

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The State Department is reducing financial assistance that formerly helped children with special needs who were living abroad. This funding was used to help kids gain access to the same support systems they would be entitled to in the United States.

Funding Dries Up For Foreign Service Families

Diplomatic families were once eligible to receive financing for therapies, personal school aides, additional testing sessions and summer schooling, all of which their children would be able to receive free of charge under America’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.

Diplomatic Security Agents

But their eligibility for these services is now in doubt, according to a new report from the Washington Post. As journalist Jackie Spinner writes, a series of quiet funding cuts is forcing some families to leave their children with special needs behind as they head overseas to serve our nation.

Forced To Leave Families, Some Diplomats Quit Foreign Service

Other parents have left the Service entirely. The State Department’s Medical Office has “suddenly – and without a formal change in policy” begun to prevent some children with special needs from joining their families in foreign territories, the Washington Post found.

That’s known as a “Class 5,” a bureaucratic designation signifying that, for medical reasons, a dependent is not allowed to travel overseas with their parent-diplomat. “Class 5” designations are becoming increasingly common and that’s left families with a difficult choice. Either leave one’s family to serve abroad or stay with them and work in Washington, D.C. But since diplomats can only spend six consecutive years in the US, some parents have been forced to quit their jobs.

An alternative? Just don’t talk to the State Department about your child’s disabilities. Families “no longer feel safe being open about their children’s struggles and challenges,” Rebecca Grappo, a Colorado-based consultant on foreign education, told the Washington Post. That’s probably a main reason, beyond employer retaliation, why most of the diplomats contacted by reporters refused to comment. Those who spoke to the paper requested anonymity.

Over 1,000 Children With Disabilities Receive Diplomatic Benefits

This is no small matter. In 2016, over 1,050 children and dependents received a Special Needs Education Allowance (SNEA) through the agency’s program for kids with disabilities. So it’s no surprise that internal dissension at the State Department is growing.

“Employees are now having a significantly harder time being posted overseas,” notes Kenneth Kero-Mentz, vice president for the American Foreign Service Association, a labor union for US diplomats. “There is no question that internal frustration and concern about the State Department’s treatment of families who have children with disabilities is rising.”

Speaking to the Washington Post, one diplomat said, “the State Department trusts me enough to grant me a top secret security clearance, but apparently they don’t trust me enough to be able to ensure my son has the resources he needs at school.”

No Formal Change In State Department Policy

The responsibility for finding school placements and negotiating accommodations overseas has always been on families. And it’s always been something of a struggle. Schools abroad, write Maureen Danzot and Mark Evans in the Foreign Service Journal, often pay “lip service to supporting children with learning differences,” but fail to come through.

The bureaucracy of the State Department doesn’t help much, either, but parents never felt that the agency was actively trying to prevent their children with disabilities from living with them abroad. Now, some families are beginning to suspect otherwise. As the Foreign Service Families with Disabilities Alliance notes, the Department started cutting allowances without giving families any prior notice. At least on paper, the agency’s policies don’t seem to have changed. It’s just that the benefits are dropping, without an explanation.

Family Support Began To Wane Years Ago

It would be a mistake to assume that this problem begins with the inauguration of President Trump. While the recent funding reductions obviously come under Trump’s pick to head the State Department, Rex Tillerson, major changes were already happening under President Obama.

In 2013, a new Child and Family Programs Office was created to administer mental health services for diplomats and the Special Needs Education Allowance. One of the Office’s first policy adjustments? Tethering a child’s benefits to their Individual Education Plan (IEP).

On its own, this change wasn’t terrible, because IEPs could be tailored to secure adequate support for a family’s child. But parents also started to experience a new sort of resistance from the agency’s Medical Office. Once understanding, the Office’s staff began to question whether or not families should be able to move their children’s care outside of the United States. So if anything, the new funding changes at the State Department seem to be an extension of a process begun years ago.

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