Disabled newlyweds suing to start life together in group home

PORT JEFFERSON, N.Y. — With the beaming smiles of newlyweds, Paul Forziano and Hava Samuels hold hands, exchange adoring glances and complete each other’s sentences. Their first wedding dance, he recalls, was to the song “Unchained …” “Melody,” she chimes in.

They spend their days together in the performing arts education center where they met. But every night, they must part ways. Forziano goes to his group home. His wife goes to hers.

The mentally disabled couple is not allowed to share a bedroom by the state-sanctioned nonprofits that run the group homes — a practice the newlyweds and their parents are now challenging in a federal civil rights lawsuit.

“We’re very sad when we leave each other,” Forziano says. “I want to live with my wife, because I love her.”

The couple had been considering marriage for three years before tying the knot last month, and they contend in their lawsuit that they were refused permission from their respective group homes to live together as husband and wife. The couple’s parents, also plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said they have been seeking a solution since 2010.

“It’s not something we wanted to do, it’s something we had to do,” said Bonnie Samuels, the mother of the bride.

The lawsuit contends Forziano’s facility refused because people requiring the services of a group home are by definition incapable of living as married people, and it says Samuels’ 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.

“This is a case that is moving into uncharted territory,” says George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. “If a state licenses the couple to be married, they are afforded all of the protections and privileges of marriage. The most fundamental right is to be able to live together as a married couple.”

The couple’s attorney, Martin Coleman, says he has not come across any similar court cases. “What the group homes are saying is that for this class of people, you shouldn’t be married. … What point of intellectual disability is too low for someone to be married?”

Sara Gelser, an Oregon state legislator and member of the National Council on Disability board of directors, says Americans have increasingly come to recognize the rights of the disabled to choose to live their own lives, and marriage and sex is part of that.

She says the couple’s sex life is nobody’s business.

“No one has a right to tell an adult what they can do,” Gelser says. “Sex is a healthy and full part of the human experience. I know it makes some people uncomfortable to think people with intellectual disabilities are engaging in sexual relations, but I don’t understand that.”

A spokeswoman for the Catholic Health Systems, which runs the Maryhaven Center of Hope, has declined to comment, citing pending litigation. Maryhaven has 2,000 clients, ranging in age from 5 to 80, in facilities across Long Island. The facility in Manorville where Samuels lives is for women only.

David Arntsen, attorney for the Independent Group Home Living program in Manorville, where Forziano lives, says that it doesn’t have facilities for married residents and that there is no specific legal requirement forcing the home to house them. The program’s residences have between three and 12 men and women; the home where Forziano lives is coed, according to his attorney.

The lawsuit cites a letter from the director of program services at Independent Group Home Living, saying its homes “are not staffed or designed to house and supervise married couples or assist married couples with the dynamics of their relationships, sexual or otherwise.”

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 on the lawsuit.

Experts say it is difficult to estimate how many mentally disabled people are married, since states ask no questions about a person’s mental capacity on marriage licenses.

Tiffany Portzer, a spokeswoman for the state developmental disabilities office, says the agency does not keep data on the marital status of its clients. “I can tell you that we know it’s a small minority of everyone in a group home, she says.

The couple’s parents say they have reached out to other state-certified group homes to see if they had space. They were told that although other facilities welcome married couples, nothing was available anytime soon, according to the lawsuit. Their attorney says the couple needs to live near their parents on eastern Long Island, as well as the Maryhaven Day Program, which each has attended for years.

Forziano, 30, is classified in the mild to moderate range of intellectual functioning, with recent IQ scores of 50 and 58. He has limited reading and writing skills and cannot manage money.

Samuels, 36, is in the moderate range of intellectual functioning, with recent IQ scores of 50 and 44. She has a significant expressive language disability, which can make it difficult sometimes for others to understand her.

The Social Security Administration offers disability benefits when a person’s IQ is below 70.

The couple met several years ago while attending the performing arts education program for mentally disabled adults, which teaches the basics of staging and set design, and offers singing and acting lessons.

“She’s very beautiful and she helps me,” Forziano says of his new bride.

Samuels says she fell for her future husband because he was funny; she particularly liked his “knock-knock” jokes.

But her eyes begin to well up with tears when asked about her current living situation. “I’m not happy,” she says. “We live apart.”

Bonnie Samuels says she never envisioned her daughter would ever be married, let alone become embroiled in a court fight over it.

“It does make me very angry,” she says, “that people say they want the best and the most for these individuals, or want them to have the type of life that they would like to have and let them grow as much as they can, and yet they’re being told no.”

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