Disabled LI couple living together in wedded bliss

Paul and Hava Forziano moved in together into a one-bedroom apartment in Riverhead, furnished with items their parents purchased but the two had chosen themselves. (July 1, 2013)

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A month since newlyweds Paul and Hava Forziano moved in together, their days have taken on the contours of married life.

They rise together at 5:30 a.m. and get ready for the bus that takes them to the day habilitation program where they first met, joining others with mental disabilities in rehearsing and performing plays.

At night, the bus brings them back to their new apartment in Riverhead, where they cook dinner together and pack their lunches for the next day before snuggling on the couch.

It's a life that they, and their parents, weren't sure would ever happen for them.

The Forzianos, both of whom have mental disabilities, and their parents -- Roseann and Frank Forziano, and Bonnie and Norm Samuels -- sued their former group home operators and the state in January for Paul and Hava's right to live together in one of their group homes after their marriage.

The couple had been together for seven years, and engaged for two, before their April 7 wedding.

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Although some group-home providers allow married couples, the operators of Paul and Hava's old homes -- Independent Group Home Living Program and Maryhaven Center of Hope -- did not want to house the couple together, according to court records. The operators argued that the homes were not set up for couples and that Paul and Hava were too intellectually disabled to be in a sexual relationship anyway, court records indicate.

So after their honeymoon, Paul, 30, and Hava, 36, went back to their separate group homes, about 3 miles apart in Manorville. They saw each other only at their day program, on the bus and on weekends, which they would spend together at one of their parents' homes.

"Each day that Paul and Hava separate, it seems to get harder and harder for them," Bonnie Samuels observed of the newlyweds in May.

But several weeks after the wedding, lawyers for the families indicated in a court filing that a potential home was found for Paul and Hava -- a one-bedroom apartment attached to an all-male group home in Riverhead run by East End Disability Associates.

"This is the first time we've ever had a married couple living in one of our certified homes," said Gus Lagoumis, director of program operations for East End Disability Associates. "After we met Paul and Hava, it was evident to us that they want to be together and that they should be together. It was an easy decision for us."

 

A toast to freedom

On July 1, the couple moved in. Paul carried a smiling Hava over the threshold.

The space had been furnished with items chosen by the two and purchased by their parents -- bold red couches, a dining table of dark wood, and a patterned blue bedspread to match the cornflower hue of their bedroom walls.

Hava concentrated on making and serving coffee to their visiting parents.

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"This is my first time doing this," Hava said as she took spoons from a drawer, later shrugging off help with serving the coffee from her father. "My house," she said. "I pour."

"I think Hava is able to show us that she can be more independent," Bonnie Samuels said later. "She's given that opportunity to do things and to handle things more on her own than she did before."

The six made a toast over sparkling pink lemonade before the parents left the newlyweds to their first dinner together in the new place.

"Freedom from our group homes," Paul toasted.

Paul and Hava's disabilities are such that they cannot live independently -- while they can care for many of their personal needs on their own, they are not attuned to external dangers -- so the agency provides staff members to support them in completing tasks such as cooking and cleaning.

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Several weeks after they moved in, staffer Barbara Karakas helped Paul and Hava decide what to make for dinner.

"We have turkey sausage and fish -- let me know," Karakas said. "There's peppers. We got lettuce and stuff today."

They decided on sausage and peppers, but the two made a salad first, snacking on crackers as they worked. Paul cut up a tomato with a butter knife, while Hava held the cutting board steady.

"May I have one?" she asked Paul.

"Sure, honey," Paul said, and handed her a wedge of tomato.

The previous evening, the two had invited their parents over for a spaghetti dinner they had prepared with the help of Karakas.

"They were here for dinner last night and we cooked," Paul said with obvious pride.

The simple meal -- pasta, sauce and green beans, with garlic bread Hava made herself -- astounded the parents.

"We kept having to pinch ourselves -- look at this, look at this place, look at what they're doing," Roseann Forziano said later. "They seemed very self-confident, very content and excited about being together. It's just better than I hoped, really, so far."

 

Uncertainty lingers

While their parents hope that Paul and Hava can now live happily ever after, the lawsuit, in U.S. District Court, is continuing.

The two are in an agency friendly to married couples now, but they could be separated again if they ever had to leave, or if the agency one day shut down, Bonnie Samuels said.

A success in court, the parents hope, could ensure that all group homes will house married couples like Paul and Hava, as they believe the law requires the agencies to do.

"It saddens me to think that unless we pursue this case, that there are others that won't have this opportunity," Bonnie Samuels said. "I don't want anybody else to have to fight the way we did."

But the lawsuit seemed far away from the cozy scene in the Riverhead apartment that night, where the television played low, tuned to a cooking show -- Paul and Hava's favorite. The lights were dim and the couple had long ago put the dinner dishes in the dishwasher, which now quietly hummed.

"Tired, honey?" asked Paul, fading.

"I'm fine," Hava replied.

He nestled into Hava, and both watched the screen in the apartment they now called their own.

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