In May, around 1,400 families of State Department diplomats sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, urging him to reverse the State Department’s decision to cut benefits and funding for employees’ children with special needs. Three months later, Pompeo has yet to respond to the letter.
U.S. diplomats travel to countries all over the world, depending on where they are assigned. The State Department Medical Bureau is responsible for ensuring the diplomats and their families are healthy enough to live in the assigned country, and that they receive adequate medical care. The bureau is also responsible for providing proper care for diplomats’ children who have special needs. The department is required by U.S. disability law to offer these benefits and medical care.
In the letter, the families warned Pompeo that the State Department Bureau of Medical Services was taking “deleterious actions” to restrict access to funding for benefits that special needs children require in their various assigned countries. The letter also claims that many diplomats have not taken up important posts, or have been forced out of their jobs, because they fear the quality of their child’s healthcare will decrease.
Not only is the department taking benefits away from employees who have children with special needs, but they are also telling them they owe the department thousands of dollars. In one reported account, two State Department officials informed a foreign service officer that the benefits the department had been providing to their special needs child for years were a mistake. The officials then told the officer that his family would be responsible for paying back the tens of thousands of dollars in benefits they had received. One official familiar with the situation said, “They’re saying, ‘Oh, we’re sorry we gave you that money we shouldn’t have given you years ago. You owe us $40,000.” Another official said that multiple officers are having to take out loans to pay back the benefits.
In response, some foreign service officers are attempting to hide the fact that they have a child with special needs, or contemplating quitting altogether. The letter said, “Increasingly, Foreign Service employees are choosing to conceal issues related to their children’s educational and health needs rather than suffer career and family repercussions.”
The letter follows a 2015 report that revealed the department had cut funding for children with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The report also found that the department revoked medical clearances from families that were required for foreign State Department postings.
The letter points to the deputy medical director in the directorate for mental health programs, Dr. Kathy Gallardo, who helps oversee funding for special needs education, as the official behind the benefit cuts. Two officials reported that Gallardo was promoted and her position was indefinitely extended, even though it was only supposed to be a two-year term. The letter says Gallardo “rejected, or ignored for months, memos we sent to MED suggesting reforms or posing questions.” One official said, “As long as [Gallardo] remains in place, I’m not at all hopeful for positive change.”
The State Department claims it “convened a working group” last year to look into the situation. A spokeswoman for the State Department said the department “continues to work toward a solution.” She went on to say, “Our diplomats would not be able to perform their jobs without the support of their families, which is why it is important that we address their needs.”
Despite the department’s claims, no improvements have been made. The families and diplomats who have been affected by the cuts have formed an employee group named the Foreign Service Families with Disabilities Alliance. This alliance aims to fight back internally against the cuts. In April, the department said they were working with the alliance of employees to find a solution. However, multiple department officials in the alliance have reported that the situation has only worsened in recent months and the department has refused to make any improvements.