First Person: DSS Agent Assaulted By Spouse Says “Our HR process is garbage”

 

The following is a first person account shared by a Diplomatic Security agent who was assaulted twice by his spouse in USG quarters temporary housing located in the Washington DC area.  He wrote that he wanted  to call attention to a situation he faced in the hope that “others who find themselves in similar circumstances know what to expect.”  He added that “with the ongoing pandemic and quarantine other employees may find themselves in similar situations as they are trapped with their spouses under stressful circumstances.” He told us he was a DS Agent with a few years on the job.  “Despite being relatively junior, I was a good agent that made tenure, had no disciplinary issues, and I received several awards.” 
The individual who wrote this told us that he resigned from the State Department and is now employed by another agency in his home state.
This is his story, as sent to us. We’ve added links in [brackets] for the relevant offices:  

I was assigned to an HTP [High Threat Post] post in Africa and I was there for several months.  While there, a medical issue surfaced that couldn’t be treated at Post.  I went on leave to my home state (which was also the location of my previous assignment and where my spouse and child lived while I was at post) and saw a specialist.  While on leave, I was “caught out”-the medical condition I was diagnosed with while on leave prevented my return to post.  I was told by MED [Bureau of Medical Services] that I could not return to Post, my medical clearance was downgraded, and (after what seemed like an eternity), I was eventually assigned to a position in the DC/NOVA area.  Never mind that I burned through all my leave so that I could keep getting paid and the medical per diem that I was authorized didn’t pay out until the very end.  I rented out my house in my home state and prepared to move my family to the NOVA area.

 While in temporary housing at one of the Oakwood properties, my spouse assaulted me.  Our relationship had been badly strained by the long durations apart for training and an unaccompanied tour (while at post, things got so bad that I retained a lawyer and initiated divorce proceedings).  After the assault, my spouse was arrested by the local police-and after the mandatory separation period we decided to try to patch things up and try again.  Thankfully our child was not present when this happened; several weeks later we brought our child to Virginia.  I also started looking for a position with another agency knowing that the foreign service lifestyle was taking its toll.  We wound up buying a condo in one of the suburbs and moved in.

I went on a brief TDY and this separation caused issues to resurface to in our relationship.  I committed to restarting the divorce proceedings.  However, court proceedings, custody issues, and property would be decided in my home state-not in Virginia.  I could not afford another residence in Virginia, and I could not stay with my spouse due to the violent outbursts.  I was essentially homeless.  I reached out to Employee Consultation Services and my CDO [Career Development Officer] and asked about being transferred back to my home state.  At least in my home state I would be able to stay with family and see the divorce through.  Remaining in Virginia would mean continuing to “crash” at AirBnBs until my tour was up…another 18 months.  After several weeks, my spouse assured me that it was safe to return to the condo and I wanted to see my child.

Approximately 3 weeks after returning from this TDY things again took a turn for the worse and my spouse assaulted me-this time with a weapon.  I only sustained minor injuries, but my spouse was arrested and this left me responsible for taking care of our child alone.  My chain-of-command was incredibly understanding and supportive and I was able to meet family and work obligations without issue.  Unfortunately, or HR system was much less understanding and supportive. There were open positions in my home state that I wanted to return to.  However, it seems like it takes an act of God to get an employee to one of them.  I was told that my request to “the panel”…which was supported by police and court reports, and an affidavit from my attorney which explained the need to be in my home state for the divorce, may not be sufficient justification for reassignment.  According to one of the CDOs I was dealing with (more on that later), the panel is concerned that people may “take advantage of (domestic violence) situations” and try to get reassigned.  I guess that it is more career enhancing to just continue to get abused and windup losing custody than to transfer an employee.  Thankfully, I was able to secure a position with another agency in my home state.  I won’t be homeless and I can see the divorce through to the end.  Although the pay cut hurts, at least I am safe and will see my child again.

Overall, DS [Diplomatic Security] was a great experience.  The work and the people were great.  The same goes for all of the Foreign Service and Civil Service colleagues that I had the pleasure of working with.  We hire some very talented people, but we don’t do a good job retaining them.  Our HR process is garbage.  [HR office is now officially the Bureau of Global Talent Management].

I understand that everyone has unique circumstances but just be aware that the programs that you think can help you cannot be relied upon.  By all means, try to stay with the foreign service if you like the job…had they been able to accommodate me until my issue was resolved I’d have done 20 and retired.  Your DS experience, training, and security clearance make you marketable to other agencies….keep trying and one will come through.  If DS (and the Dept. as a whole) were serious about retaining employees, they would fix the HR system.  I am now looking to see if I have any legal recourse; others shouldn’t have to go through this.  As a wise person said, “at the end of the day it is just a job”.  It was an interesting and rewarding job-but still just a job.  There is other good work out there.  If you think things may go bad, get your applications in.  Constantly have applications going with other agencies so you always have a parachute…that is what saved me.

Below are his “lessons learned,” shared for those who may be in similar circumstances:

      • Employee Consultation Services (ECS) will not help you.  When you go to them with a problem they are supposed to support/not support whatever action you are requesting.  I was told that my situation was an “assignments problem” and they couldn’t support/not support a course of action.  That is not entirely accurate as my issue was a curtailment issue…leaving an assignment and then letting CDO/Panel send me somewhere appropriate.  You either support my request to curtail, or you don’t.  ECS will listen to you and hear you out, just don’t expect anything from them.
      • AFSA.  Same as ECS…totally useless.  Technically, no regulation was broken so I guess they can’t do anything.  Can I get my union dues refunded?
      • DS Peer Support.  An excellent resource for agents.  They will give you some solid advice and try to steer you in the right direction.  The people there actually give a f@&k.  However, this is an informal resource and does not have any power to weigh-in on official actions.  Still, I am glad that I reached out to them.  If anything, it was a safe forum to vent in.
      • Chain of Command.  My supervisory chain, all the way up to the DAS-level were incredibly understanding and supportive.  DS is lucky to have people like this in senior leadership positions.  I can’t say enough about the quality of leadership that I have had while in DS.  Some high-ranking folks went to bat on my behalf to try to help me get where I was trying to get assigned to, but the HR process is so broken that even that didn’t help.  I understand that some folks may have had different experiences, but for me I was thankful that this team was in place.  During my time with DS I was fortunate-be it with my supervisors at the Field Office, the Senior RSO at post, or at my directorate.  I would work for any of these people again in a heartbeat; anywhere and under any circumstances. 
      • CDO.  Which one?  At one point I was dealing with 3 of them LOL.  I am sure they are nice people personally, but understand that their job is to fill slots with minimal consideration as to what is happening with you as an individual.  One of them was gone for training and totally unresponsive for over a month.  LOL, what kind of HR training was that?  One kept raising the bar for evidence.  I was told that the police reports might not be enough for ‘the panel’ and to get an affidavit from my attorney explaining why it was critical to be assigned to my home state as the divorce proceedings got underway.  My lawyer provided this document, but then the evidentiary bar was raised again.  I was told that even more documentation from the lawyer was needed.  Thank God, the job with the other agency came through and this Kafkaesque nightmare has ended.
      • The Panel.  This is the mysterious entity that will decide your fate.  No transparency.  Who knows what guides their decisions?  The most absurd part was the panel’s “concern that people may try to use a personal tragedy to change assignments”.  What a joke.  Two different police departments and the Virginia courts are involved in a massive conspiracy to dupe the assignments panel.  I should have just stayed put and let the violence escalate.  Maybe next time it won’t be a knife and minor lacerations.  Also, did you know that you can’t just resign to join another agency?  The all-powerful “panel” must approve your resignation.  The most absurd part was part was writing a bogus resignation letter to the Secretary.  “Dear Mr. Secretary, I don’t want to write this letter.  I don’t want to quit but if I don’t get away from my abusive relationship I will be in danger, and our personnel system is so screwed-up they can’t even reassign me.”
      • Safe Haven.  Even in a domestic assignment, you need to have a plan to ‘bug out’ in case things at home get ugly.  Especially with this COVID-related lockdown; expect to see a spike in abuse and divorces.  AirBnB is not a realistic option for 18 months.  If there is even a smidgen of tension in your marriage….squirrel away some money so that you can survive for a few months.  Network with single colleagues!  A fellow agent offered me an opportunity to be roommates and I should have taken it rather than try to fix the relationship.  Stupid me!  Had I taken it, maybe my career could have been salvaged.  The irony is that if this domestic violence happened at post, it would have been much easier.  My spouse would have been removed from post and I would not have been facing homelessness.
      • Training.  I thought the marriage was in good shape going into the foreign service.  Beware, people change-always leave yourself an out.  We survived several military deployments and my spouse knew that not all overseas assignments were unaccompanied, and that we’d usually be together over the course of a career.  I am not excusing her violent behavior.  However, the length of training (CITP/BSAC for 6 months, then ATLAS for 12 weeks, and then BFFOC/BRSO for 12 weeks) in relatively short succession with inadequate dwell time between trainings is harmful.  This is mostly an issue for new agents, but still it takes its toll on everyone.  Immediately upon completion of 6 months of CITP/BSAC we were made to register for ATLAS and given a very short time frame in which to get the course done.  None of this training involves bringing your family with you.  I understand the need for bodies, but do they ever wonder why they can’t staff places?  Do they ever wonder why there is this amount of turnover?  Nope.  Just throw taxpayer money and bodies at a problem and it will eventually sort itself out.  All of the training they paid for is now going to another agency…good use of taxpayer funds.  If you are still single and considering marriage, please, please, get a prenuptial agreement if you are going to make this a career.  People change, and the reality of frequent separation takes its toll.
      • Hidden Fees.  Since I did not complete a year at my last assignment, I am liable for the cost of moving.  Never mind the violence that I was subjected to soon after arrival in my new assignment, or the extenuating circumstances involved.  If they want to pour salt into the wound then they can explain this to my congressional representative and the news media.  I have saved all of the supporting documentation to make my case.  I will be fighting any charges incurred.
      • Lack of options.  Despite there being open positions in my home state, they (the HR system in its entirety) made no effort to get me there.  What is even worse, they couldn’t offer alternative options.  I’d have even gone abroad to get away from my spouse; I’d only need to be at my home of record for certain hearings and conferences related to the divorce.  My clearance was restored to a “2” so there are places that I could have gone to get away.  Going to a post would have solved the domestic violence and the homelessness.  Ironically, had I been on an accompanied tour and been assaulted at post this would have been “better”…my spouse would have been sent back to the US and I could have remained and worked and not had to worry about being homeless.  What really gets me is that there was another agent that was also going through a very ugly divorce, but he got to stay at the location he needed to be at.  Who knows how things work?  The rules are either made up as they go along, being bent or broken, or there are no rules.

 

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