RIVERHEAD, N.Y. – It was moving day Monday for a newlywed mentally disabled couple from New York who launched a court fight to be able to live together.
Paul Forziano and his wife, Hava, who fell in love seven years ago and were married in April, welcomed visitors including their parents, attorneys and reporters into their new second-floor apartment in a large house run by an agency that operates several group homes in Riverhead, on eastern Long Island.
“Happy, not sad,” said Hava Forziano, who has limited verbal skills.
“We can be together all the time now,” said her husband.
The couple and their parents filed a civil-rights lawsuit this year, seeking to compel the group homes where they had lived separately until Monday to accommodate their wishes to live together as a married couple. Although the newlyweds were able to find a place to live, their attorney said the court fight will go on.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” said attorney Martin Coleman. “People like Paul and Hava have to have the ability to move around if they want to. There’s only a limited number of providers. We need to be sure they’re not closed out of places.”
The federal civil-rights lawsuit contends Paul Forziano’s facility refused to allow the couple to live together because people requiring the services of a group home are by definition incapable of living as married people, and it says his wife’s home refused because it believes she doesn’t have the mental capacity to consent to sex.
Legal experts are watching the case closely as a test of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which says, in part, that “a public entity shall make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures ... to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability.” The group homes are licensed as nonprofits by the state and receive Medicaid funding on behalf of their clients.
The facility where the former Hava Samuels lived has declined to comment because of the pending litigation. The group home operators where Paul Forziano lived said they didn’t have facilities available for a married couple.
Also named in the lawsuit is the state Office of Persons With Developmental Disabilities, which the couple claims sided with the agencies in refusing to accommodate their wishes and has not done enough to find a solution. The office has declined to comment.
Gus Lagoumis, director of programming at East End Disability Associates – operators of the facility the newlyweds now call home – said his agency has no objections to mentally disabled people living as married couples.
“Gone are the days where parents are told a kid has a disability, institutionalize them and forget they ever existed,” he said. “Now we have people growing up in the community and they want to do things just like everybody else does, and getting married and possibly getting divorced is one of the things that goes on in a community.”
Paul’s mother, Roseann Forziano, said her son and his new wife likely would still be looking for a new place had it not been for the legal action.
“I don’t think it would have happened without a lawsuit.” she said. “All of a sudden, once you file a lawsuit, there’s a whole lot of cooperation. I don’t want that to have to be the norm.”