Supporting FS Families with Special Needs Children

Speaking Out


Bidding is never easy. But for the Foreign Service families of some 1,400 children with special education needs, there are extra challenges.

Parents know their children and what their needs are best, so every time bidding season begins, a new round of scouring international school and State Department websites, contacting posts and exchanging emails with the Bureau of Medical Services (MED) and other department offices begins.

All of this takes place in an effort to find a post that can meet the educational and therapy needs of a child while also, hopefully, meeting career assignment aspirations. It requires patience, persistence and, in many cases, just plain luck.

In theory all the elements exist to facilitate overseas assignments when children with special needs are part of the equation, including necessary financial support. In the United States, children with learning disabilities receive, by law, educational and therapeutic support in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (known as IDEIA).

When posted overseas, the State Department provides a larger education allowance (the Special Needs Education Allowance, or SNEA) to families with children who would receive special needs support, by law, in the United States. The allowance is intended for use in obtaining the same type of assistance and support that would otherwise be required under IDEIA from a U.S. public school district. Various offices in the State Department assist parents of children with special needs to obtain services for their child’s education commensurate with the requirements of IDEIA.

In the best-case scenario, both required funding and needed services are available, and an overseas assignment comes together seamlessly, with a willing overseas school and qualified therapists meeting a child’s needs. At best this occurs in ways that check the boxes necessary to get clearance for the assignment and authorization from State for financial support to cover associated expenses.

More often than not, however, there are delays, rejections by international schools that only pay online lip service to supporting children with learning differences, and bureaucratic tussles over regulatory interpretation. Flexibility has been paramount in making it all work—on the part of parents, relevant State Department offices and overseas service providers.

Yet today, when the rate of diagnosis of various types of special needs in American children is rising dramatically, for some unclear reason State Department authorization for funding to support members of the Foreign Service with special needs children is becoming increasingly difficult to access.

Since each application for support via SNEA is handled individually by the employee and department authorizers, it is impossible to quantify the trend for successful and unsuccessful applications. However, based on the growing chorus of frustrations being shared within the community of Foreign Service parents of children with special needs, it is clear that new bureaucratic barriers have arisen.

At its worst, the result is to seriously limit overseas assignment opportunities for a broad cross-section of the Foreign Service, in many cases preventing officers or specialists with advantageous skill and knowledge sets from serving in locations that would directly benefit the State Department and promote the foreign policy interests of the United States.

Such policies may ultimately drive employees to leave the Service because they are unable to reconcile career interests with the needs of their children. Or they may prevent promising candidates with valuable skills from entering the Foreign Service in the first place, due to concerns about the ability to meet a child’s individual needs.

SNEA 101

Learning differences don’t discriminate; they affect families of all backgrounds equally. To both support Foreign Service families and maximize employee skills and expertise, the State Department needs to provide consistent support to families with special needs children.

This is a complex problem that requires a well-thought-out, long-term solution. To address it one bidding cycle at a time—as is now done—is short-sighted, especially in light of the ever-growing number of hardship and hard-to-fill posts, not to mention the rising rate of special needs diagnoses among American children.

The rate of diagnosis of conditions such as autism, ADD/ADHD and dyslexia among American children, including within the FS community, has been on the rise for the past decade. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in six children in the United States has a developmental disorder.

A CDC study of the prevalence of developmental disabilities in U.S. children from 1997 to 2008 found an absolute increase during that decade of 1.8 million children diagnosed with developmental disabilities (a 17-percent rise). Diagnoses of autism increased by 289 percent and ADHD by 33 percent.

In terms of funding support, State Department regulations governing the use of SNEA make the intent clear: the “Special Needs Education Allowance … applies to children who would fall under Public Law 108-446, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA), if residing in the United States.”

Since financial support is, in principle, available via SNEA, the biggest challenge is usually the tremendous variability from country to country in terms of the availability of schools willing to accept special needs children and in-country therapy providers.

There is little consistency. Parents often have no problem finding excellent services in some developing countries, and yet are unable to find adequate programs or schools in parts of Europe or the therapy services they need in the child’s native language. In some cases, many posts are completely out of reach of an employee due to a child’s learning needs.

It would, of course, be naive to expect to duplicate perfectly the services typically available and provided in a U.S. public school system. Still, the process must recognize the uniquely challenging aspects of educating and raising children with special needs in an overseas environment, while entrusting basic care decisions to parents in consultation with relevant authorities, such as MED’s Child and Family Programs, the Family Liaison Office and the Office of Overseas Schools.

The department’s support via SNEA has been a critical, and invaluable, part of the solution for many years. So during the recent period, when, without announcement or explanation, that benefit became increasingly hard to obtain because of bureaucratic and what seem to be arbitrarily strict interpretations of the governing regulations, it was a serious blow.

The change in how allowances are authorized seems to date from June 2013, when administration of SNEA shifted from MED’s Employee Consultation Services (ECS) office to the Child and Family Programs (CFP) office, both under the umbrella of MED/Mental Health Services.

For members of the Foreign Service with special needs children, the challenge of planning their overseas bidding has become even more onerous.

There Are Solutions

There are many ways to make the process less stressful and more supportive while still adhering to the regulations. Here are some recommendations to consider.

• Engage parents directly in setting policies and procedures. We understand that there is a SNEA working group, but it includes no parental representatives. Direct and frequent engagement with parents to discuss the impact of policies and provide clarity about concerns—in both directions—would be invaluable.

• Always announce policy changes well in advance of the bidding season.

• Increase flexibility in using SNEA in a manner that (1) empowers parents to make decisions regarding the education of a child with special needs and (2) conforms to regulatory requirements. In most cases, this would entail recognizing that even though a supportive arrangement may not duplicate the way a service is provided in the United States (such as using SNEA funds to directly hire an educational aide when there isn’t one at a school), it should be authorized if the end result is the same.

• Decouple the medical clearance process from the use of SNEA. MED should provide Class 1 medical clearances to children with special needs who have no ongoing medical condition, rather than the current practice of issuing a Class 2 or a Class 6 clearance based solely on educational needs.

• Ensure transparency in the SNEA eligibility process and greater clarity in what services will and won’t be authorized for reimbursement—not only in terms of the types of services that are covered, but also whether there are restrictions on how the support services are delivered.

• Authorize broader access to boarding schools that serve children with special needs, including the use of SNEA in lieu of other educational allowances when a school at post cannot adequately meet a child’s special needs.

• Reinstate SNEA funding for use in placement assistance, both for families currently assigned overseas and for families newly assigned and transferring overseas from a domestic assignment.

Currently SNEA can only be used in this manner while the family is assigned overseas. Placement assistance is required under IDEIA for children with special needs; but under IDEIA, U.S. local school districts are not obligated to provide this once the parent or child is no longer resident in their jurisdiction.

Families transferring overseas are thus caught in a bureaucratic limbo, with no assistance from either their local school district or the department. Placement assistance using SNEA was previously provided to families transferring from a domestic assignment for children who met certain criteria, but it is no longer being authorized by MED/MHS/CFP.

• Reaffirm previous State Department policy that the intention of SNEA is to provide support for services commensurate with those legally guaranteed under the IDEIA to children in Foreign Service families who have special needs and are stationed overseas, and clarify whether the department considers the IDEIA to have legal application for overseas assignments or whether it is only used as a guideline.

• Create an appeals process whereby an employee who disagrees with a MED/MHS/CFP decision can request to have that decision reviewed by a third party (instead of filing a grievance).


The primary responsibility for making sure that special needs children’s requirements are met will always begin and end with parents. Department officials must recognize that they should partner with parents in a way that enables them to use appropriate resources to determine what is in the best interest of their child. If done properly, all parties benefit.

Making it possible for a large portion of existing and future Foreign Service members with valuable skills to serve in a wider range of assignments by facilitating rather than hindering access to SNEA will help ensure that the State Department continues to retain and recruit a diverse group of personnel representing the entire U.S. population.

Maureen Danzot is a financial management officer who joined the Foreign Service in 2001. She has served in Bahrain, Botswana and South Africa, as well as in Washington, D.C. She and her tandem husband, Miguel, have two daughters.

Mark Evans is a political officer who joined the Foreign Service in 1995. He is currently posted in Stockholm, having served previously in Beijing, Tokyo, Baghdad, Oslo and Washington, D.C. His wife Kristen is a speech and language pathologist, and they have four sons.