The Cable

Lawmakers Scold State Department for Reportedly Slashing Disability Support for Diplomats’ Children

Funds for therapy and education are reportedly cut.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing on Capitol Hill, Oct. 28, 2015. (Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing on Capitol Hill, Oct. 28, 2015. (Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

Democratic lawmakers are demanding answers from the State Department on reported plans to roll back support for diplomats with disabled children.

On Thursday, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) sent a letter to the State Department questioning the department’s “troubling” plans to cut support for foreign service officers who have children with disabilities.

The Washington Post first reported on Oct. 29 that the State Department had quietly cut support for families with disabled children, including therapy, extended education, and one-on-one school aides. The Post also reported the State Department has suddenly barred some children from going abroad with their families.

“We ask enough of our diplomats,” the senators wrote in a letter addressed to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan. “Our actions should demonstrate the value that they bring to the State Department and the nation — not make it harder for them to serve.”

Foreign service officers typically take their spouses and families with them as they bounce between posts around the world. The State Department has provided allowances and other forms of support to foreign service officer families with disabled children so they can receive care and education comparable to what they would receive at home.

A State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy the Department has not been withdrawing financial support for children with special needs. “The Department is committed to working with employees to assign them to posts that best meet the needs of employees, their family members, and the Department,” the spokesperson said.

Though the reports are disputed, Cardin and Murray said these moves, if accurately reported, “would make it significantly harder” for foreign service officers and force some to choose between leaving their family behind or going abroad without services for their children. “No one should have to make that choice due to their child’s disability,” they wrote.

They demanded Sullivan inform them of, among other issues, any changes to support for foreign service officer families with disabled children, if any funds were shifted or reallocated, and if any children have been stopped from accompanying their parents to posts abroad.

Cardin is the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Murray is the ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which oversees disabilities issues.

The State Department spokesperson said in the 2016 to 2017 fiscal year, the department provided allowances for over 1,000 foreign service officer family children who have special education needs. “Medical clearances to go to post are individualized and the Department cannot discuss individual cases,” the spokesperson said.

The reports come amid Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s controversial plans to reform the department, cutting its size and budget. But he has angered both lawmakers and the State Department’s rank and file by leaving them in the dark on many elements of the redesign plan and pushing out senior career diplomats.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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