After vows, disabled LI couple's aim: a life together

Disabled since childhood, 28-year-old Paul Forziano and 35-year-old Hava Samuels are engaged to be married. Referring to themselves as "a marriage of six," the couple's parents have been instrumental in moving the relationship forward. They're also doing everything in their power to make sure the couple can live together once they're married. Videojournalist: John Paraskevas (Feb. 22, 2013)

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Paul Forziano and Hava Samuels are in love. They're getting married. But after their honeymoon, they'll be forced to live in separate homes.

Paul, 29, and Hava, 35, are mentally disabled. They live in Manorville about three miles apart in group homes for the disabled. They've been engaged since 2011, when Paul gave Hava a ring to slip on her size-4 finger.

But after their wedding next Sunday and a short honeymoon in Pennsylvania, they'll be living separately.

It won't be by choice. Their group homes have told them they don't want to house a married couple together, according to court records.

Paul, Hava and their parents have filed a federal lawsuit against New York State and the two nonprofit agencies that run their respective group homes. Their goal is to secure the couple's right to live together, arguing that not allowing them to do so once they're married violates the Fair Housing Act, Americans With Disabilities Act, the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment, and New York mental-hygiene law.

The defendants won't comment directly on the suit but are moving to dismiss it in court. A conference is scheduled for Wednesday.

If the two families are successful, said William Brooks, clinical professor of law at Touro Law Center and supervising attorney of the Civil Rights Litigation Clinic at Touro, the case could be precedent-setting. "If successful, it would likely require residential providers of services to people with disabilities to take steps to accommodate individuals who seek to live in marital relationships," Brooks said, adding that there is currently little case law regarding people with intellectual disabilities and marriage.

Some area agencies do allow married couples to live together in group homes, according to court papers.

 

The couple's story, so far

Paul and Hava met eight years ago at an arts program that teaches skills to people with disabilities through rehearsing and performing shows such as "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Annie."

A year later, the two began to take an interest in each other. "She was very beautiful," Paul said.

The attraction was mutual, and Hava invited Paul on their first date, to a dinner dance at her bike club.

Seven years have passed and Paul and Hava are just as enamored with each other.

"I just want to spend the rest of my life with Hava, and I want to grow old with Hava together and because I just care about Hava," Paul said, explaining why he proposed. "Because I always help Hava when she's sad, and she helps me when I'm sad."

"May I?" Hava asked, as she often does when she needs people to pause while she forms her words. "Love. I love him."

"I love you too, sweetie," Paul said.

The agencies that manage the two group homes -- Independent Group Home Living Program, which runs the home where Paul lives, and Maryhaven Center of Hope, which runs Hava's home -- wouldn't comment directly on the lawsuit.

In a September 2012 letter to Paul's parents, Thomas Trakoval, IGHL senior director of program services, wrote that the agency felt that Paul lacked the skills and ability to be married.

And Walter Stockton, chief executive and founder of IGHL, said in an interview that the agency isn't against relationships, but he said that none of its 55 area group homes are set up for married couples.

"We don't think we're required to provide that type of service in our homes," Stockton said. "It'd be very difficult in the small, family-type environment that we have."

IGHL, Maryhaven and the state attorney general's office have indicated in letters to the court that they plan to seek dismissal of the suit. State officials would not comment directly on the lawsuit.

"We can't comment on matters in litigation," said Chris Hendricks, a spokeswoman for Catholic Health Services, of which Maryhaven Center of Hope is a member.

 

An uncommon courtship

Paul and Hava see each other at their day program in Port Jefferson Station, on a weekly "date night," and on weekends, when Paul's parents, Roseann and Frank Forziano, or Hava's parents, Bonnie and Norm Samuels, take the couple home with them.

Hava has lived in the group home since 2000, Paul since 2009. Their disabilities mean that neither Paul nor Hava can drive, manage money, or live independently. Their reading and writing skills are limited. They have trouble counting, and find puzzles meant for children to be a challenge.

Paul's IQ was measured at 50 and 58; Hava's at 44 and 50, her scores possibly affected by her struggle to speak more than a few words at a time.

Both families welcomed the relationship but said they were confounded when Paul and Hava first approached them with the idea of marriage.

Could a disabled couple marry? Roseann Forziano wondered whether she would have to discourage Paul, as she did when Paul wanted to learn to drive.

The parents said they researched the issue with the state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, and found that a disability on its own was not a barrier to marriage.

They also learned that some group homes for the disabled allow married couples to live together.

"It's their civil right, just like anybody else's," Roseann Forziano said.

The families approached Paul's and Hava's group homes, where they said they met resistance.

"Both these agencies felt people like that couldn't have a true marriage," Roseann Forziano said. "If you're not able to live independently, you really shouldn't be married and you shouldn't ask us to do it."

The agencies, according to court records, tested Paul and Hava to see whether their disabilities precluded them from being able to consent to sexual activity. If an individual is classified as "non-consenting," then any sexual contact with that person can be grounds for an abuse claim.

IGHL and Maryhaven conducted sexual-consent assessments on Paul and Hava, court papers say. Each found them unable to consent to sexual conduct, but both sets of parents argue in court papers and in interviews that the exams were done without giving Paul and Hava the sexual education they needed to answer the questions.

The Forzianos and Samuels then began teaching the couple about sex on their own using a curriculum developed by YAI, another area group home provider, then took the couple to YAI in Manhattan for another sexual-consent assessment, which they said they both passed. Maryhaven rejected the outside assessment. And IGHL expressed concerns with how the assessment was done, court papers say.

In January, both families filed suit in federal court in Central Islip against IGHL and Maryhaven, as well as the head of the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities and the state, arguing that the government should require the agencies, which receive government funds, to accept a married couple, especially because other agencies do.

"When you're trying to deny somebody something on the basis of disability, you have to look carefully at what their abilities are and what your reasons are for denying it, and you better have darn good reasons," said Martin Coleman, an attorney litigating the case for the parents.

Paul's and Hava's parents say intellectual disabilities aren't emotional ones -- while they might never be able to crunch a budget, they know what love is.

"There are certain things they don't understand and never will understand," Roseann Forziano said. "That doesn't mean they can't sustain a loving relationship, which is what marriage is."

 

Seeking long-term solution

Both families noticed changes in their children as the relationship progressed -- Paul became more selfless, constantly solicitous of Hava's needs. Hava grew more self-confident under Paul's stream of compliments, more willing to express her thoughts, however difficult she found the words.

And both sets of parents say Paul and Hava's relationship has brought them a sense of comfort, too.

After their parents die, Paul and Hava will still have each other.

"For me to be able to think that he has a wife and a companion for the rest of his life, it makes it easier for me to kick off at some point," Roseann Forziano said.

"Like any couple, they will be their own family," Frank Forziano said.

On Valentine's Day, mother and daughter disappeared into a small room at the Bridal Suite of Centereach.

When they emerged, Hava walked stiffly inside a strapless wedding dress that pooled around her feet. It was the first fitting for the dress she picked out herself.

"Relax, relax," Bonnie Samuels soothed.

"I am, Mom," Hava insisted, still not moving, her arms rigid at her sides.

Bonnie Samuels, Hava and Roseann Forziano went to the tailoring area, where the seamstress pinned the dress and attached wide straps to the bodice to hold it up.

"Better," Hava said, relaxing a little and smiling as she gazed at her image in the mirror.

"Hava had a baby-naming at 2 weeks old," Bonnie Samuels said as the seamstress cut through the rich ivory fabric at Hava's feet. "There's a prayer -- 'I should see you under the chuppah [canopy in a Jewish wedding ceremony] with your bridegroom.' And then when we found out she had problems, it was like, those are things I'll never see. Then she had a bat mitzvah, which was amazing. And now to do this, this is even more amazing."

After the fitting, Samuels, Forziano and Hava drove to R&S Diamond Exchange in Rocky Point, where they had purchased Hava's engagement ring. Paul, Frank Forziano and Norm Samuels were already there, ready to select the couple's wedding bands.

The couple leaned over the display case, looking at a variety of gold wedding bands. Hava tried on a yellow band, then a white one, comparing them both against her engagement ring.

"Hard decision," Hava said. "Hard."

"I want one like Daddy's," Paul said.

Their parents helping them, they decided on matching gold bands -- yellow for Paul, white for Hava.

Paul and Hava could live together after their wedding if they were to move in with their parents. The lawsuit says that the state made that recommendation, but neither set of parents believes that's a long-term solution. Paul and Hava moved to group homes, they said, because they needed a place to live that would last beyond the life span of their parents.

"If they came home and lived with us, and then something happened to the both of us and they both needed emergency placement . . . who's going to force them to house them together?" Roseann Forziano said. "They could very well be separated."

While the parents researched other agencies that would take married couples, they said they couldn't find any in the area with openings. But they believe all agencies should be required to house married couples.

 

All set for matrimony

Meanwhile, the families are preparing for Paul and Hava's wedding next Sunday.

"We're doing a leap of faith," Roseann Forziano said. "We're all not getting any younger."

Some unknowns lie ahead. While the couple has received sexuality education, none of the parents know whether their relationship will be a sexual one. Hava is on birth control pills for a medical issue, and the parents say Paul and Hava know having children isn't an option for them because of their disabilities.

"The sexual aspect of their marriage is their business," Frank Forziano said. "Maybe they won't have sex. Maybe they will."

The parents have said they're preparing Paul and Hava for the fact that, after their honeymoon, they'll be returned to their respective group homes.

"It's going to be the saddest moment when we take them back," Norm Samuels said.

A week after Valentine's Day, the two families gathered at Brookhaven Town Hall to apply for Paul and Hava's marriage license.

"I feel nervous," Roseann Forziano said. She carried a sheaf of paperwork, including the papers that indicated she and her husband gave up their rights as guardians over Paul in regard to marriage.

Paul was excited.

"I want to get married just like you and Daddy got married and just like Bonnie and Norm got married and just like my grandparents got married," he said.

Finally, it was time to go in. Paul and Hava sat down, clutching each other's hands, as senior clerk Mary Dugan typed the license.

"I'm happy," Hava said.

"Me too, honey. I'm happy," Paul replied. "I'm so excited, honey. Our marriage license."

When Dugan returned with the license, the two mothers went over it for mistakes, then watched as Paul wrote his name on the signature line. When it was Hava's turn, her mother coached her through each letter.

"You know how to make an 'A,' " Samuels said.

Back at the Forzianos' house, Frank Forziano popped open a bottle of sparkling wine.

"To Paul and Hava on this wonderful, groundbreaking day -- the day of their getting their marriage license," he said. "Now we're legal, and we're ready to go."

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