The Department of State (DOS) views divorce as a private civil matter to be addressed by a civilian court. When the separation becomes difficult, including physical harm and non-physical harm, harassment and emotional abuse, the spouse is left with “a sense of loss and powerlessness.” The Family Liaison Office (FLO) provides somewhat ad hoc advice, most often referring spouses at risk to AAFSW. DOS does not provide access to free legal assistance services, and has no legal assistance offices to visit.
Over the past two years, as the Spouse in Transition Chair, I have heard and witnessed too many men and women going through unfair and undeserved hardship. “We were married over two decades. While we were posted overseas my husband met another woman and decided to leave me. For over a year I tried mediation, counseling and hoping for the affair to stop. None of the above worked so I decided to leave post, hoping he would come back to me and our daughter. Unfortunately, he filed for divorce in the country of my residence. Knowing my difficult financial situation, he pushed me to sign the papers.”
There is not any specific profile for these spouses. I have come across stay-at-home males and females, foreign-born EFMs, female EFMs working at post, female and male FSOs at post, male FSOs stateside, and foreign-born and American male and female EFMs stateside. There are no special issues or special cases defining their struggles and challenges. And no one but themselves could best share these feelings. So, I decided, with their authorization, to share them with you. I will just quote them in respect of their wish for anonymity.
Due to frequent moves, the majority of families live on one income, or on a second income linked to being an EFM for the trailing spouse. The financial security for the family often comes from the employee. “When I left the United States for West Africa to support my husband in his dream of working as an FSO, I saw it as a great adventure for our family, which included a then 9-month daughter. The problem was, like most spouses, I had spent the last three years without a steady income and in going overseas, had given up my home, car, furniture and basically the life I had in the U.S. It was all too much.” And a separation becomes an issue of survival: “I felt trapped–was I to stay in a now dead-in marriage for the sake of my job or leave and start from scratch back in the U.S., with my now 4-year-old daughter?”
The challenge often begins before the separation: “My life was ripe with unique challenges and frustrations in my divorce process.” Life becomes difficult and challenging at post because of the underlying pressure and stigma spouses go through during separation while at post, including threats and abuse from employees. Keeping abuse a secret at post and stateside is perceived as paramount as the contrary would limit promotion opportunities and hurt the reputation of the employee. Moving frequently interferes with the spouse trusting anyone other than family with such personal issues: “All the while, I kept my problems to myself, despite the embassy ‘bubble,’ and went to work.”
Once officially separating at post, the spouse is left at the mercy of unguided decisions from management. “Things escalated in four months and suddenly he curtailed and moved to another housing during the curtailment process and asked post HR that I not contact him unless through them, which caused me to lose my job as an EFM, no income and no home to go to in that war zone.”
“My wife and I were separated by medical evacuation when I returned to the States. I was told I would return to post ASAP but then subsequently discovered that my spouse had blocked my return to post until she felt comfortable with reapplying for my medical clearance (which never occurred). Our marriage quickly disintegrated into divorce due to multiple additional factors. Due to our sudden separation and my lack of ability to return to post, I was unable to return to our two young children.”
Most often a reasonable extension to remain at post is not granted or granted on an ad hoc basis, although during impending dissolution of marriage at post, the Chief of Mission must arrange for temporary housing for spouse and dependents. “I loved my EFM job (which had gone unfilled for 2 years), was respected in the Embassy, and needed time to work in my job and save before leaving post. I initially asked for nine months, or the most I could have. Despite prior assurances that management understood my situation and would try to work something out, the new Charge D’ Affaires gave me two months to leave post, despite my daughter having just started school. I am in the process now of relocating (and getting a separation) and I will be fine because I have to be. I do hope DOS is able to put into place rules that help EFMs in similar positions. Being given 6 months of temporary housing would have been ideal, and in my view, the moral thing to do, especially for an organization whose majority is actually made up of families.”
The pressure to leave post from the employee and management is strong, with no clear guidelines for the Chiefs of Mission, with decisions made at their discretion. “It sent a clear message to me that I was not valued as an EFM, regardless of me contributing through my EPAP role, and that I was wrong to trust management in helping with this personal issue.”
In a divorce, DOS employees and dependent spouses need separate attorneys to advise them to ensure both parties receive independent and confidential advice, and to avoid any conflicts of interest. The spouse may be left penniless during separation, unable to navigate the legal process and hire an attorney. “My spouse also decided to sever our ties financially after I had been financially dependent on her during our time together in the Foreign Service. This made it difficult for me to secure legal resources to investigate my options and/or secure immediate access to my children.” The only recourse at this time is ‘The Family Advocacy Team,’ a mechanism through which the spouse can address the lack of financial support from the employee to the Chief of Mission at post. This mechanism is not widely shared, often unknown to the spouse, or difficult for the spouse to use as its record will remain in the employee’s file.
This is a time when spouses wish they could find some kind of support and framework from DOS in how to address these challenges. “My divorce process displayed even further to me the difficulties for EFMs regarding understanding rights, disclosures, and control within the State Department related to divorce.”
Back stateside, spouses can only address their issues through the FLO office, which again address some issues, most often the collaterals from dealing with this ordeal, but not the fundamentals.
“FLO offered me clinical social services — Employee Consultation Services (ECS — which was extremely needed at that traumatizing phase I was going through as I needed someone expert to vent to and help me get the community support I need through support groups and so they did. ECS also put me in touch with the Victim Resource Advocacy Program (VRAP) and it was more or less a consultation as they were able to draw my attention to a few things during the legal matters of my marriage as they didn’t consider me as a victim as per their mission.”
“As far as organizations within the State Department, the FLO, DC Med unit and AAFSW were incredibly responsive and helpful. They provided answers and support where possible but were obviously limited due to the complex legal issues involved with divorcing an FSO while living in the US and having involved minor children who have never technically resided in the States. I found it helpful to have a personal contact in AAFSW. I was also greatly assisted by having the Foreign Affairs Manual posted online, which gave me clear language as to the process for certain concerns in divorce proceedings.”
Again, for many, FLO is perceived as “powerless, too busy and/or protecting the employee,” and too often referring the cases to AAFSW: “Last but not least, the AAFSW were great help in trying to help me during all the marital and legal status issues and helped with a small amount of my divorce lawyer fees with his office directly, and finding jobs, and keeps me informed with the divorce/separation recovery support groups that FLO used to arrange at the State Department on a monthly basis.
Truth be told, I am thankful for all FLO services, yet without AAFSW, who had the time and energy to talk to me one on one and explain to me who would help with what and keep me in their network, I wouldn’t be able to get access to most of FLO services.”
At the end, it seems that each separation at post or stateside is a new event, with no guidelines or SOPs, kind of like reinventing the wheel each time. In this complicated time of Covid-19, with travel restrictions, Family Courts on hold, more people have been reaching out to AAFSW, each one with a different story, or level of hardship but all in need of support, stronger rights or more recognition within the State Department. Please find more resources to navigate this process here. AAFSW will continue working towards supporting these members of the American Foreign Service.
Because there is always an end, and for some a happy ending: “I got my divorce finally and I am moving on to a new chapter in my life with all the sorrows, tears, blessings, and lessons during the last year — meanwhile my ex-husband suffered NOTHING. I wish no other woman/spouse should go through this hardship for any reason.”
Happy summer and stay safe!
Celine Castel Erickson, Transition Chair