Throughout its history AAFSW has been an advocate for Foreign Service families. Over forty years ago, we were instrumental in founding the Family Liaison Office and Overseas Briefing Center. Today, we recognize volunteers overseas through the SOSA Awards and here in Washington with the Lesley Dorman Award.
Historically, beginning in the 1970’s, AAFSW’s advocacy was rooted in our Forum, a think tank for new ideas. The Forum Committee of AAFSW tackles inequities in the Foreign Service affecting families and attempts to solve or to ameliorate them. Here are some, but not all, of its past projects.
Although the Committee has close connections with the Family Liaison Office (FLO), it has the freedom to work outside the confines of government. In the past it has lobbied Capitol Hill, placed articles in newspapers and sat on InterAgency Working Groups to help resolve problems.
Pension Sharing for Divorced Spouses. This was one of the earliest Forum projects, and ultimately gave divorced spouses the right to share their ex-spouses’ pension if they had been married a certain number of years. Prior to, and during, the 1970’s, many ex-wives were left destitute when their husbands divorced them. Some had devoted years to following their husbands around the world, raising families without a chance to earn a living or have a profession. Without this legislation, when the ex-husband retired or died, the new family would often receive all the pension or survivor’s benefits.
Foreign Service Associates Program. This was initiated in the mid-1980’s due to a concern for the lack of employment opportunities overseas for spouses of Foreign Service employees. Committee members met regularly with Department of State management officials and members of Congress. There was a letter-writing campaign to Congressional members and staffers. Initially it was hoped that employment opportunities at post and compensation would be available for official entertainment expenses similar to policies of other countries’ diplomatic services. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, this program was halted. In later years, the Department State created Professional Associates Program which provided employment opportunities for spouses due to staffing shortfalls in the new emerging countries created after the fall of the Soviet Union. Eventually, the program was rebranded into the Expanded Professional Associates Program (EPAP) which is still active.
Foreign Service Families in Times of Crisis. The Forum on the Foreign Service in Times of Crisis was initiated after the Iran hostage situation of 1979 in which 52 US diplomats were held against their will for 444 days in Tehran. Spurred on by the generally poor treatment of the hostage families in the U.S. and elsewhere, this Forum Committee worked with the advisory panel responsible for the Inman Report in 1985, officially known as the Secretary of State’s Advisory Panel on Overseas Security. While this report primarily addressed physical security concerns of embassies and internal planning for crises, Forum committee members attempted to include treatment of those family members evacuated by crises. Some of the committee’s accomplishments were the guidelines for Separate Maintenance Allowances (SMAs) during involuntary evacuations, enhanced Mental Health Care coverage by insurance companies and the establishment of a Crisis Support officer at FLO. For many years AAFSW maintained an active Crisis Support Group of volunteers who met evacuated families at the airports, provided child care, accompanied them to medical appointments and offered general support. FLO and geographic bureaus are now tasked with supporting these families.
Elder Care Travel Benefits. In 1999 AAFSW convened an Inter-Agency Round Table to discuss what government agencies were doing to support elder care. A State Department working group was convened to examine the document which the Inter-Agency Round Table had produced. AAFSW was included as a full partner along with representatives from DG, MED, Allowances, FLO and the geographic bureaus. A new allowance for Emergency Visitation Travel made support possible for an employee or spouse who needed to travel to help elderly parents. Employees and spouses were each eligible for two such trips during the course of a Foreign Service career–one for each parent.
Special Needs Allowance (SNEA).
After 2013 the Child and Family Program (CFP) took over the duties of the Employee Consultation Services which worked closely with MED. There were problems from the beginning with staffing changes and shortages and staff that weren’t used to working with families with overseas lifestyles. In addition, changes to the Special Needs Education Allowance were made adversely affecting families and children. As a result the SNEA is being cut to more families and more children are given a medical class 5 which means they cannot go overseas. AAFSW worked with Foreign Service Families with Disabilities Alliance to ameliorate these issues. Together we tried to get the numbers of SNEAs granted and SNEAs denied to compare them to pre-2013 figures.
More recently, in 2018, representatives from AAFSW, AFSA, FSYF, the Foreign ServiceFamilies with Disabilities Alliance and other interested parties worked together with State Department on affected changes to the FAM specific to the Special Needs Education Allowance. In June 2019 a new FAM section was published with revisions to SNEA which expands the services which are allowed and aims for more flexibility. Beginning with the 2020 summer bidding cycle it also includes changes to simplify bidding. These can be found in 3 FAM 3280.
The appeals process is still being negotiated.
Hiring Freeze under Tillerson. In January 2017, the White House released a memorandum regarding an across-the-board government hiring freeze. Even as the hiring freeze lifted for some civilian positions it remained in effect for EFMs. This longterm freeze not only adversely affected morale but also negatively impacted post operations due vacancies. Employing family members to fill certain positions saves the government hundreds of thousands of dollars by eliminating the costs of filling those positions with other Foreign Service employees. In Spring, when it was apparent the hiring freeze would not be lifted for EFMs, AAFSW reconvened the EFM Employment Working Group. The group began to collect testimonies and reached out to AFSA to discuss ways to collaborate. By August, AAFSW began a letter writing campaign to Congress urging Congress to recognize the detrimental effects of the EFM Hiring Freeze. During the Fall and Winter, AAFSW continued to urge State Department officials to lift the hiring freeze. Eventually in early 2018, the hiring freeze was lifted allowing posts to determine need to fill positions and EFM hiring.
This section includes excerpts from an October 2008 AAFSW Global Link newsletter article written by Ann LaPorta and Judy Felt.