The special needs education allowance program had become almost impossible to navigate. Will the new SNEA policy make a difference?
BY DONNA SCARAMASTRA GORMAN
You don’t really think about most allowances until you need them. Still, problems with the special needs education allowance (SNEA) have been bubbling up for several years now, as Foreign Service parents of special needs children fought with the Bureau of Medical Services (MED) and with the broader State Department for support and recognition of the issues they face as they try to bid on, get to, and survive at overseas posts.
In response to the pressure, the State Department decided in 2017 to review the matter. The department’s SNEA task force included representatives from MED, human resources, AFSA and the Foreign Service Families with Disabilities Alliance, a group of FS members that advocates on behalf of families with special needs children.
In December 2019 the task force completed its work, and the department presented a revamped SNEA policy that was outlined in the newest section of the Foreign Affairs Manual, 3 FAM 3280, and accompanying changes to the Department of State Standardized Regulations. But are these changes making a difference?
Over the past few years, the problems FS families have been encountering with SNEA have been covered extensively in The Foreign Service Journal, with both parents and department officials weighing in. From there, the issue moved into the wider world, with outlets such as The Washington Post and Foreign Policy covering State’s seemingly callous approach to FS families in need.
In 2017 Washington Post reporter Jackie Spinner wrote that the department was “quietly withdrawing financial support for diplomat families of children with special needs, effectively forcing some parents to serve overseas without their children or ultimately leave the Foreign Service.” Spinner noted that there was no formal change in policy when, without warning, MED began slapping class 5 clearances on special needs children, which prevented them from going overseas with their families and forced some parents to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket to find appropriate schooling for their children.
Foreign Policy jumped on the story next. In April 2018, Robbie Gramer reported that starting in 2015, “the medical office has been arbitrarily cutting funding for children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or other special needs or mental health issues. It has also revoked the medical clearances for some children that are required for foreign posting, forcing some diplomats out of their jobs because of their children’s special needs.”
After a group of Foreign Service members representing some 1,400 families sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a letter in 2018, saying the department had slashed benefit options and funding for children with special needs, FP again covered the topic, quoting from the letter. (The Secretary himself chose not to answer the letter.) Heather Nauert, State Department spokesperson at the time, said in a statement to FP that department leadership “continues to work toward a solution.”
MED’s own practitioners also jumped into the fray. When parent Kathi Silva wrote about the “disconnect between MED and the families” in the March 2018 issue of The Foreign Service Journal, Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, then the medical director of the Bureau of Medical Services, responded with a vague promise that MED would “continue to advocate very strongly on behalf of all FS children.”
Child psychologist James Brush later wrote in the FSJ that during his time at State, he “found that many MED psychiatrists, some members of the Office of Overseas Schools and some within the Family Liaison Office were prepared to torpedo the [Child and Family Program] from the start.”
As it got down to work, the task force uncovered multiple problems, including issues with communication, financial management and coordination among SNEA stakeholders.
As it got down to work, the task force uncovered multiple problems, including issues with communication, financial management and coordination among SNEA stakeholders. In addition, the task force determined that MED was not only understaffed, but also not well staffed for addressing problems with SNEA. The hiring freeze of 2017 depleted MED’s staff as employees left the department and were not replaced. Parents argued that some of those who remained at MED either didn’t understand or were downright hostile to the program, working behind the scenes to dismantle it.
And then there was the problem with the professionals in charge of administering the program. Parents, and even many of the department’s own medical professionals, have long argued that State needs to hire educational experts, not medical doctors (RMOs) or psychiatrists (RMO/Ps), to help determine what remedies might best serve special needs children posted overseas.
Heather Townsend, a retired FSO and senior grievance counselor who has spent the past few years working on behalf of AFSA’s clients to resolve problems with SNEA, says AFSA is pleased with the changes as outlined in 3 FAM 3280. The allowance is now clearly spelled out, she says, which “should provide for greater consistency of administration and less individualized interpretation by the approving authority.”
For the first time, she notes, the FAM articulates a formal philosophy “that is clearly supportive of families of children with special educational needs.” The FAM asserts that “by assisting employees with the fulfillment of the educational needs of their children, SNEA encourages employees who have children with special educational needs to bid on and serve in foreign assignments.” It also promises that the department will authorize SNEA “as flexibly as possible” because it is “in the department’s interest to maximize employees’ ability to serve in foreign assignments.”
Changes have also been made to the allowance for boarding school. DSSR 276.22 was amended to permit employees to apply for the away-from-post educational allowance for a child who would normally reside at post while not attending school if the child’s medical clearance allowed it. Parents and educational consultants, however, are still unclear as to how these changes will affect individual cases.
One parent says she has spent more than $50,000 out of pocket to pay for her child’s therapeutic boarding school because the cost of such a school exceeds the normal away-from-post allowance. She was afraid to request financial help for the school, she says, because she knows of families who were forced to curtail when MED determined that their educational challenges couldn’t be met at post. She has written to MED several times since the December 2019 cable came out, but says she has yet to receive a reply as to whether the policy changes apply to her family.
Other important changes to SNEA include clarification that it applies not only to children who would be covered in the United States by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but also to those covered under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Speech therapy and language therapy will now be covered by SNEA even when provided outside the school setting or normal school hours.
Further, extended school year services may be reimbursable even when they are provided in noneducational settings, as long as those settings offer the services specified in the child’s individual learning plan (ILP). Another change is one that parents have long wanted: In some circumstances, the services of an instructional aide hired directly by the parents are now reimbursable.
There has never been an appeals process available to parents. The department is reportedly at work, however, on a new 16 FAM section that will lay out a SNEA appeals mechanism. Townsend says AFSA is still waiting to see and comment on 16 FAM. AFSA is also expecting to comment on the new centralized vouchering mechanism that the department is developing. The department anticipates that a central system for processing payments will remove the discrepancies that parents currently face as they work with different financial management officers from post to post, all of whom read the regulations differently. Some parents, though, have expressed concern that this centralized system, once implemented, will continue to delay decisions regarding payments.
Ultimately, Townsend says, AFSA “would like to see the availability of special education resources eliminated as a consideration in the MED clearance process altogether.” And, she says, “SNEA is an educational allowance; we would like to see the department adopt the approach that it trusts parents” to make educational choices on behalf of their own children.
Last year the State Department initiated a pilot program allowing FSOs to bid on posts even if their family members had not yet been medically cleared.
Last year the State Department initiated a pilot program allowing FSOs to bid on posts even if their family members had not yet been medically cleared. A great idea, some parents say—but until MED begins to process clearances in a timely fashion, it isn’t much help to parents, because medical clearances still need to be received before paneling. Still, says one parent, if you get an assignment, then you’ll have someone at your incoming post advocating on your behalf with MED, because post wants you cleared to serve. Before the pilot program began, bidders were all alone in their battles with MED.
Many parents are withholding judgment at the moment, with most saying they haven’t yet seen the promised changes go into effect. But they are hopeful that, given time to increase and expand its staffing, MED will make good on the promises outlined in 3 FAM 3280.
One FSO parent says he applauds the new policies and the effort it took to put them in place. When the initial cable came out, he “hoped things would be different.” But sadly, he has not yet seen a change. “Policies are just policies until they are put into action,” he says. “While the policy has changed, the people have not; and in our case, we have not seen a positive change. MED is still a dysfunctional office with no accountability.”
Several people close to the task force specifically named Steven Walker, formerly a deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Human Resources, as the person who deserves thanks for pushing these changes through. (Mr. Walker was unable to comment for this article.) Parents are appreciative of his effort; but still, while progress has been made, says one, there’s “a practical side where things aren’t where they need to be yet, largely because staffing within the Child and Family program office was decimated, leaving only one person to process all SNEA cables and claims worldwide.”
Changes to the policy aren’t happening where families can see them, and AFSA’s Townsend says this lack of transparency is because the Office of Child and Family Programs (MED/MHS/CFP) has been “critically shorthanded,” with just one employee processing all requests, resulting in delays for families seeking SNEA authorization or reimbursement. The good news, she says, is that “MED is making progress now with hiring, and if that stays on track, MHS/CFP will be up to six staff by this summer.”
And, for the first time, MED’s staff will include a professional with expertise in special needs education, something for which parents have long asked.
So what can you do if your family is still stuck in a SNEA nightmare, beyond simply waiting for MED to staff up and enforce its new policy?
For starters, familiarize yourself with 3 FAM 3280 and the revised DSSR. Consider hiring an educational consultant or educational attorney to help you understand what assistance your child is entitled to under U.S. law. If you are an AFSA member, you can contact senior grievance counselor Heather Townsend for help interpreting the new rules. Or join the Foreign Service Families with Disabilities Alliance, whose membership advocates on behalf of families like yours.
Educational counselor Rebecca Grappo, who has helped numerous Foreign Service families navigate these waters, remembers that SNEA used to be a “wonderful” program, one that helped parents and the department work collaboratively rather than causing friction and mistrust between the two groups. Many parents also recall that until a few years ago, the program ran smoothly and helped families develop creative solutions to their children’s unique health care and educational needs.
The State Department needs to make this program work again, says Grappo, “because they need to staff embassies all over the world. You want it staffed? Take care of people’s kids. This is in the interest of the U.S. government; it’s not a perk. You need people, and you have people who will go, and they will serve where you need them—as long as their kids are being taken care of.”