Under Secretary Bulatao on Enhancing Support for Employees with Children with Special Needs

Help Fund the Blog | Diplopundit 2019 — 60-Day Campaign from June 5, 2019 – August 5, 2019

______________________________________

 

According to State/OIG which is conducting a review of the State Department’s Special Needs Education Allowance (SNEA), “By law, for employees serving in foreign areas, the Department must provide a Special Needs Education Allowance (SNEA) for children who meet the requirements of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act.”]

Also from state.gov’s FAQ on SNEA:

Is the State Department required to meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) with regard to the education of special needs children overseas? If so, how does it do that?

No. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its 2004 reauthorization, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA), are federal funding laws ensuring a free and appropriate education to children with disabilities in the United States. IDEA/IDEIA governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to eligible children and youth. While existing law does not require DOS to replicate what a public school would provide to a student in the United States, our goal is to approximate what a child would receive in a good US public school system. Per the Overseas Differentials and Allowances Act and the Department of State Standard Regulations (DSSR), the IDEA/IDEIA framework is the basis for the allowable reimbursable services for the Special Needs Education Allowance (SNEA). DOS is committed to assisting employees in meeting the necessary expenses incurred when deployed overseas in providing adequate education for their school-age children. The education allowances are designed to assist parents in defraying those costs necessary to obtain educational services which are ordinarily provided free of charge by public schools in the United States.

In 2018,  a group representing employees with special needs children warned that the State Department Bureau of Medical Services was taking “deleterious actions” to restrict funding access for benefits the department is required to offer under U.S. disability law according to reporting from FP. Some internal battles with MED made it to the public sphere but there were a lot more stories that stayed under wraps out of fear of retaliation, or in at least one case we are aware of, due to an expressed threat from MED. More recently, there was reportedly a no-confidence letter related to a specific MED official, circulated and signed by Foreign Service employees and family members.

Last Friday. the new Under Secretary For Management Brian Bulatao issued new guidance on SNEA.

I am pleased to announce the Department has begun to implement a series of revisions and clarifications to policies and procedures that improve how we support our families who have children with special educational needs. These reforms are the result of a review by a Department-wide working group convened last fall by Deputy Under Secretary Bill Todd.  

Key Points: 

·         A new FAM section for the Special Needs Education Allowance has just been published. It will be updated over the next few months as we implement additional reforms. 

·         Guidance in this FAM chapter includes revisions to where a service can be provided. 

·         Separately, the Summer 2020 bid cycle will include changes to simplify bidding for employees with children with Class Two medical clearances. 

New FAM Section:  Overseas educational support is governed by DSSR 270 and 5 U.S.C. 5924 (4), which are complex interagency regulations. We have just published a new FAM section – 3 FAM 3280 –  to ensure that these regulations, especially those pertaining to the Special Needs Education Allowance (SNEA), are interpreted consistently and to make clear the intent of SNEA. Additional changes are in interagency clearance, and any resulting changes would be added to the appropriate FAM section(s) and announced via ALDAC and Department Notice. 

The new FAM makes clear the Department’s policy intent regarding SNEA: 

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 is in the Department’s interest to take care of its employees and maximize their ability to serve in foreign assignments.

International schools vary in their ability to match the support structure, special education environment, or services found in U.S. public schools. For this reason, the Department should authorize SNEA as flexibly as possible in order to accommodate the unique and often challenging circumstances of overseas operating environments and foreign-area assignments.

Implementation guidance for the new FAM section and bidding rules will be sent separately. 

I am excited about these changes. We have an obligation to equip and engage our team to meet mission needs. Providing support to our people so they can get the job done is the best way to ensure we deliver on the Department’s goals.  

AFSA has reportedly reviewed and commented on the new FAM guidance. 

The SNEA issue and problems with MED should have been resolved soonest instead of being allowed to linger this long. We are pleased to see that Under Secretary Bulatao addressed this issue soon after he assumed charge as “M.”

John Naland, the President of the Foreign Service Youth Foundation said that These are important reforms towards creating a transparent program that rests on a solid interpretation and consistent application of law and regulations to allow Foreign Service parents of children with special educational needs to take care of their families while simultaneously fulfilling their overseas service obligations as Foreign Service members.”

Now, we’ll have to watch and see what MED is going to do about this.

Below is an excerpt from 3 FAM 3285  which spells out in ints entirety the Department policy

(CT:PER-949;   06-27-2019)
(State)
(Applies to Foreign Service & Civil Service Employees)

a. The purpose of SNEA is to assist employees serving at posts abroad with obtaining for their children with special educational needs special early intervention, kindergarten, elementary, and secondary educational services, including such educational services as are provided in the United States under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, that public schools in the United States ordinarily provide without charge.

b. 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 is in the Department’s interest to maximize employees’ ability to serve in foreign assignments. 

c.  International schools vary in their ability to match the support structure, special education environment, or services found in U.S. public schools.  For this reason, the Department should authorize SNEA as flexibly as possible in order to accommodate the unique and often challenging circumstances of overseas operating environments and foreign-area assignments.

d.  Ideally, special education services should be provided in a school setting as part of a child’s educational curriculum.  However, recognizing that educating children with disabilities in overseas settings often involves unique challenges, in circumstances when special education services cannot be provided directly in a school setting but are available as services offered outside school or school hours, or via the internet (e.g., online speech therapy), SNEA will cover special educational services required by the child’s IEP or equivalent which are provided outside of school and/or outside normal school hours, when consistent with the DSSR.  SNEA reimbursements may be made directly to employees who have used their personal funds for these services.  Parents may not be reimbursed for special therapeutic services that they personally provide, although, in accordance with DSSR regulations, they may be reimbursed for eligible Home Schooling expenses.

e.  Because most children of Department of State employees would be enrolled in one of the school districts of Washington, DC, Virginia, or Maryland if their employee parent were assigned domestically, school districts in these areas will generally be the point of reference when determining what special educational services are “ordinarily provided without charge by public schools in the United States.” Within this context, services named in a child’s IEP, or equivalent document, may be eligible to be covered by SNEA.

f.  SNEA is an education allowance. It is subject to other applicable legal authorities and policies that govern education allowances in general.

Read the whole thing here.

 

Related posts:

Related items:

Advertisements

FSGB finds no merit in argument that @StateDept has “unfettered discretion” to grant or deny SNEA benefit

Via FSGB Case No. 2018-016:

“The Department next argues that its granting a SNEA under section 5924 is “discretionary,” and in any event must be paid in accordance with the DSSRs. As we have previously stated, the prior authorization the grievants sought, for reimbursement after their arrival at post, is fully consistent with the DSSRs. Further, we find no merit to the argument that the Department has unfettered discretion under section 5924 to grant or deny a SNEA benefit to employees in any way it may see fit. Rather, law and regulation must limit its discretion.”

Via giphy.com

@StateDept’s Mental Health Services Drive Employees with Special Needs #FSKids Nuts

Posted: 12:26 pm ET

 

The Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) operates 168 schools in 8 districts located in 11 foreign countries, seven states, Guam, and Puerto Rico. All schools within DoDEA are fully accredited by U.S. accreditation agencies. Approximately 8,700 educators serve more than 73,000 DoDEA students. This is what it says on special education:

Special education is specially designed instruction, support, and services provided to students with an identified disability requiring an individually designed instructional program to meet their unique learning needs. The purpose of special education is to enable students to successfully develop to their fullest potential by providing a free appropriate public education in compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as implemented by DoD Instruction 1342.12, “Provision of Early Intervention and Special Education Services to Eligible DoD Dependents.”

In DoDEA, special education and related services are available to eligible students, ages 3 through 21 years of age. To be eligible for special education: the child must have an identified disability; the disability must adversely (negatively) affect the child’s educational performance; and the child must require a specially designed instructional program. DoDEA recognizes clearly defined categories of disabilities with specific criteria for determining eligibility such as physical, communication, emotional and learning impairment, and development delay.

The State Department does not have its own schools so Foreign Service children go to local schools and avail of local school services. Is the State Department required to meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) with regard to the education of special needs children overseas? Here is what state.gov says:

No. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its 2004 reauthorization, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA), are federal funding laws ensuring a free and appropriate education to children with disabilities in the United States. IDEA/IDEIA governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to eligible children and youth. While existing law does not require DOS to replicate what a public school would provide to a student in the United States, our goal is to approximate what a child would receive in a good US public school system. Per the Overseas Differentials and Allowances Act and the Department of State Standard Regulations (DSSR), the IDEA/IDEIA framework is the basis for the allowable reimbursable services for the Special Needs Education Allowance (SNEA). DOS is committed to assisting employees in meeting the necessary expenses incurred when deployed overseas in providing adequate education for their school-age children. The education allowances are designed to assist parents in defraying those costs necessary to obtain educational services which are ordinarily provided free of charge by public schools in the United States.

Prior to 2013, we understand that the State department took a flexible, supportive approach that ensures support for dependents while creating maximum flexibility for Foreign Service employees to serve overseas. In October 2013, SNEA management was switched to the then newly created Child and Family Programs (CFP).

The Department’s Standardized Regulations or DSSR was also amended to state that “There must be a formal Individual Education Plan (IEP) or equivalent prepared by a professional medical or educational expert which delineates the educational services required to provide for the child’s special needs.  Reimbursement may only be for those services provided for in the IEP which are actually required, as opposed to those services which a parent or school may recommend as desirable.”

Between 2013 and early 2017, we were informed that “SNEA benefits are reined back dramatically.”  Previously authorized uses were  either denied or dramatically restricted.  One parent told us, “No explanations or justifications are provided for the change in policy despite many requests.  At the same time, parents are increasingly challenged by CFP staff, often rudely, about the way in which they plan to educate their children overseas.”  A direct suggestion that the parent curtail his/her assignment was not unheard of.

That suggestion may become more real for parents of approximately 1400 special needs children in the Foreign Service. We understand that in spring 2017, the Office of Allowances formally ruled that 1) based on DSSR language the only dependents who can receive SNEA are those specifically given a MED clearance that allows them to reside full time at post; and 2) No other clearance is sufficient (such as a Class 6 that allows for a child to reside at post outside of the school year in a boarding school situation).

What was the result of this official determination? Apparently, MED started “aggressively” issuing Class 5 clearances to children with educational, mental health and other disabilities even though there are many/many overseas posts where services have been and could be provided to successfully support such children.  It was reported to us that when challenged, MED doesn’t back down, claiming that their decisions are in the best interests of the child since “everyone knows” that only the “mildest” of special needs can be met in an overseas school situation.

Class 5 medical clearance means  domestic only assignment and it is supposedly issued “to those with complex medical conditions.”

For the FS employees with approximately 1400 special needs kids, a Class 5 medical clearance for a family members potentially means 1) DC/domestic assignments for the foreseeable future only; 2) an overseas assignment that leaves the family at home on a voluntary separation, or 3) back to back to back unaccompanied assignment to priority posts while the family stays behind in the United States on a voluntary separation.  We understand that not all these kids are given Class 5 clearance now but as their clearance gets reviewed, families anticipate that the numbers will continue to grow.

“It appears that any child deemed to have “moderate to severe” needs is being given a Class 5 at the time a MED clearance review is triggered.”

When we inquire about potential issues with the SNEA funds, our source speaking on background told us that SNEA has “always been under the administration of MED, and SNEA spending could only be reimbursed after approval by MED authorities.”  We were told that previously, in some cases SNEA was allowed to be used “for therapies that some would argue were either non-traditional or perhaps not fully established as effective” so the source said it is understandable to see the need to standardize the application of SNEA when the Child and Family Programs (CFP) was created and took over management of SNEA. But the source also said “it doesn’t explain the inflexibility CFP staff have employed since” when dealing with families with special needs FS kids.

Who’s doing this and why? Families are pointing at the MED/MHS (Mental Health Services), which oversees the Child and Family Programs (CFP) in the State Department’s MED org chart.  That office is headed by Dr. Kathy Gallardo, the former Deputy Director and now Director in MED/MHS. She reports to Dr. Charles Rosenfarb who is currently the Medical Director of the Bureau of Medical Services. Dr. Rosenfarb reports to the Under Secretary of Management, an office that sits currently vacant and is overseen by the “M Coordinator” and Acting DGHR Bill Todd, who in turn reports to somebody inside Secretary Tillerson’s 7th Floor bubble.

As to why? Well, no one seems exactly sure why. The State Department does not talk to this blog anymore for juvenile reasons but we cannot overlook the elephant in the room. The State Department is looking to cut cost across the board. We expect that it will be looking at everything and inside every cupboard to come up with its desired 37% cuts.  How many families will endure the separation with employees deploying overseas, and families staying behind because their special needs children are not authorized to be overseas?  Last year, Bloomberg  reported that Secretary Tillerson was seeking a 9% cut in State Department staffing with majority of the job cuts, about 1,700, through attrition, while the remaining 600 will be done via buyouts.

So in the case of the special needs FS kids, the State Department is potentially hitting two birds with one big rock? Anyone at State/MED wants to chat, we’re happy to talk and update this post.

#