26 MARCH 2018 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Families with Special Needs Kids Need Support BY KATH I S I LVA Kathi Silva is married to a Foreign Service officer; they have served together in Montevideo, Belgrade, Caracas, Pretoria, Paris and Washington, D.C. She has worked as a freelance editor, a USAID contractor and a Community Liaison Office assistant at previous posts and is currently completing a master’s degree online. Kathi and her husband have three children, two of whom have led her into a new world of children with disabilities and given her more than 15 years of experience raising happy, resilient, special needs diplokids. R aising children in the Foreign Service is a lot like gardening— we provide a rich environment for our children with all the right conditions and hope they will bloom. But as gardeners know, there is a lot of adapt- ing and adjusting to whatever conditions may arise, and our plants don’t always grow in ways we expect. Good gardeners do what they can to establish strong roots, provide a rich environment of support for their growing plants and create a plan and a system that responds to unpredictable factors out of their control. For families with special needs children, this system is even more important. In recent years the number of children in the United States diagnosed with spe- cial needs is rising, and this trend is also seen within the State Department. Until a few years ago, thanks to a positive rela- tionship with the Office of Medical Ser- vices (MED, now the Bureau of Medical Services) and the support and flexibility MED gave us to “grow our gardens,” the experience of raising a special needs child overseas was mostly a positive one. As international schools become more inclusive and tele-therapy gains in popu- larity, there are more options than ever before to address special needs overseas. Thus, the challenges for families with special needs children overseas should be increasingly manageable. Yet for the past couple of years the experience of Foreign Service families with special needs children has been the opposite. Why Reduce Support? In the June 2016 Foreign Service Journal , Maureen Danzot and Mark Evans wrote an important Speaking Out column about the fact that parents were increasingly having a hard time access- ing Special Needs Education Allowance (known as SNEA) funds and getting a say in the medical clearance options for their children. Since then, there have been numerous actions on behalf of, and by, disgruntled parents in an effort to resolve these concerns. A parent advocacy group, the Foreign Service Families with Disabilities Alli- ance, was created in 2016 with the goal of providing a unified voice for families dealing with MED issues. When the alli- SPEAKING OUT ance’s suggestions were not answered and the number and types of complaints were serious enough, AFSA got involved by writing memos and attending meet- ings with MED to mediate parents’ complaints. The State Department Office of Civil Rights is addressing a complaint from a Foreign Service employee who argues that some of MED’s current practices are disadvantaging Foreign Service members whose dependents have special needs. This, he says, is a violation of the Ameri- cans with Disabilities Act. The case is likely to open the door to many similar complaints. On Oct. 29, 2017, a Washington Post article by Jackie Spinner, “State Depart- ment support for diplomats with children with disabilities is contracting,” brought public attention to the issue. One month later, Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) sent a letter to the State Department questioning the “trou- bling” plans to cut support for Foreign Service families with special needs chil- dren. Congress has also requested brief- ings from the State Department, and MED in particular, on special needs issues. The disenfranchisement of Foreign Service families by MED, and the seem- ingly haphazard way it is handling clear- ances and educational allowances for our special needs children, have gone public. More people are aware of the problem, but has anything changed? Not in the direction families were hoping.