(RIVERHEAD, N.Y.) — A newly married, mentally disabled couple’s dream of living together — up until now beset by legal troubles and care facilities that refused their wishes — is about to come true. New York State is providing them with a home of their own.
Paul Forziano, 30, and Hava Samuels, 36, who both have mild to moderate mental disabilities, met seven years ago at a day program run by the Maryhaven Center of Hope, which is part of Catholic Health Services of Long Island. After they met, they immediately began telling their parents about their new friend. It wasn’t long before they were calling each other “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.”
On April 7, 2012, they married on Long Island’s North Shore.
The wedding was initially pushed back because the couple wanted to be able to live together once they were married. So before their big day, their parents began trying to find a way for the two, who lived in separate group homes three miles apart, to establish a home together.
“They started dating, and gradually got more and more serious about each other,” Paul’s mother, Roseann Forziano, told ABCNews.com. “Four years ago they started talking about getting married. At the time I didn’t know if people with developmental disabilities could be married. So I started doing research.”
Forziano said that she “naively” approached the Independent Group Home Living Program (IGHL), which has housed her son since 2009, and asked if this could be facilitated. She told ABCNews.com that the state-sanctioned nonprofit that ran the home told her that the couple would not be allowed to share a living space within the program.
Eventually the families would file a lawsuit in January 2013, claiming that the IGHL, the Maryhaven Center for Hope, where Hava lived, and the state were violating the couple’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act and the 14th Amendment.
According to that suit, IGHL’s clinical director had concluded that Paul and Hava were not capable of cohabitation. The director stated that if a person “cannot wash, cook, iron, and take care of money for themselves, then that person cannot take care of another person,” according to the complaint.
Undeterred by this conclusion, Forziano and her husband decided to research the rights of their son and his wife-to-be.
“We went to the law library and looked up regulations,” she said. “They said that agencies cannot deny people’s civil rights. The state has to regulate the agencies, and ensure that they uphold [Paul and Hava’s] civil rights.”
Forziano said that she and her future in-laws then had her son and his bride-to-be assessed by psychologists at the YAI Agency in Manhattan to determine whether they were emotionally and mentally mature enough for a sexual relationship. The couple attended relationship counseling, and based on this, a psychologist from the Cody Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities at Stony Brook University concluded that the couple’s desire to marry was appropriate.
Still, the families continued to hit roadblocks in trying to secure housing for the couple with representatives from IGHL unresponsive to the couple’s desires, according to the suit.
Ultimately Forziano and her husband, along with Hava’s parents, decided that IGHL, Maryhaven and the state had failed to provide adequate assistance in finding Paul and Hava a home. That’s when they decided to sue.
Norman Samuels, Hava’s father, told ABCNews.com that he and his wife, Bonnie, were repeatedly told by Maryhaven that they didn’t feel Hava was clinically capable of being in a marriage.
“We were led to believe that in order to be married and cohabitate, they’d have to prove that they were [capable]. That is not valid,” he said. “We were misled. We spent a year and half going through those steps, because we believed it had to be done that way.”
Samuels said that that Maryhaven used an outdated mode of psychological analysis to establish whether Hava was able to consent to marriage and sexual relations — a tool which he says is invalid. Maryhaven, he said, also refused to educate her.
“They said, ‘We don’t have the facilities to educate them.’ That’s not even valid,” he told ABCNews.com. “They could have hired someone. They didn’t want to do it. In our mind they were just against it all along.”
Attorney Robert Briglio, who is representing the families, told ABCNews.com that the homes where Paul and Hava reside are trying to maximize the homes’ independent decision making, and that the state of New York must be held responsible for how they’re run.
“[The state] funds these homes to provide Medicaid waiver services,” he said. “That’s the program under which the clients are residing. The New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities is responsible for that program. They use private agencies like these homes. That doesn’t mean [the state is] not responsible for how that program is operated.”
Representatives from IGHL declined to speak with ABCNews.com regarding the case.
Christine Hendriks, a spokeswoman for Catholic Health Services of Long Island, said in a statement that Maryhaven Center of Hope has “supported and facilitated efforts” in which clients have expressed a desire to build a relationship in the hope it leads to marriage.
“There are instances where facilitating a marriage is not warranted, indicated or appropriate in our clinical setting,” she said in a statement. “When a resident in our judgment is clinically incapable or lacks the requisite ability to consent to the marital relationship or requires a level of service and supervision where an accommodation is not possible, we cannot provide the services necessary to facilitate the marital relationship and cohabitation.”
After years of the families’ battling the system, the state last year finally came through for the couple when a vacancy opened up in a group home for the mentally disabled in Riverhead, Long Island, run by East End Disability Associates. The group home was asked if it could expand their home of eight residents to accommodate Paul and Hava, and it agreed.
This week, the couple was offered their own one-bedroom apartment in the home. They will move in sometime in July, according to Forziano.
“We went Monday to see it,” she said. “They’re very excited. They met the other individuals living in the home. We didn’t want to throw them from the frying pan into the fire. We did research, had a psychologist go over there and to the guys that live there. Hava’s figuring out where the TV is going to go!”
Although the state was eventually able to help the couple achieve their dream, the lawsuit will go on. Both IGHL and Maryhaven had a duty to encourage the couple’s desire to marry and cohabitate, according to the complaint.
“The suit will continue, so the state will have to clarify its stance on married people with disabilities,” Forziano said. “It’s not just marriage, it’s any civil right. You see that people are allowed to cohabitate, and IGHL won’t, because they don’t think it’s a good idea. It has to be the same services across the board.”
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