Parents of disabled adults horrified by attack on ShopRite employee

Photos - local - DNPPUNCH07
Mark Smith, left, just before being punched by a young assailant in an attacked recorded on video and posted to social media.

If you didn’t see the Facebook video of Mark Smith being attacked by a gang of gleeful little monsters, please pity those of us who have. We can't unsee the atrocious images portrayed in the video, which hit 4.6 million Facebook views in just 24 hours before being pulled down on Wednesday.

To be honest, though, everyone needs to see what happened to Smith, damn the nightmares. Because words can't do justice to the horror of watching children set upon him like vultures on carrion.

Smith deserves for all of us to get what it’s like to be helpless among numbed-out kids so devoid of empathy they’ll ambush the defenseless for sport. And the aging parents of intellectually or developmentally disabled adults like Smith need us to understand their fear for their sons and daughters.

Only then might we do something lasting about the dysfunction and violence that turns our most vulnerable citizens into prey.

To recap: On Memorial Day, Smith, 39, who is intellectually disabled, was approached by five boys, ages 12 to 15, in Germantown. The kids began chatting him up.

It hurts to imagine how much Smith, who works part-time at a Cheltenham ShopRite, must’ve enjoyed the attention. Store owner Jeff Brown says Smith is an affable, beloved employee who enjoys cleaning, bagging and helping customers.

“He has a very nice personality and disposition,” Brown told my colleagues Stephanie Farr and Chris Palmer. “He’s a very sweet man.”

That sweetness was lost on Smith’s alleged assailants – one of whom recorded what happened during their encounter with him. As Smith smiles toward the camera, a second boy throws a punch to the side of Smith’s head. It lands with such force, his face actually ripples in sickening response. As Smith stumbles, a third boy hits him in an ear while the other boys laugh wildly.

Because nothing’s funnier than sucker-punching a happy-faced adult with the trusting demeanor of a child.

Audrey Coccia was horrified but not surprised when she heard about Smith.

“Anecdotally, parents have been telling us more and more that their kids are being openly ridiculed or tormented,” says Coccia, co-executive director of Vision for Equality, a nonprofit that advocates for intellectually and developmentally disabled adults and the parents trying to do right by them. Her own daughter Gina, 50, has a severe mental disability.

“Because our kids are so vulnerable, they’re easy targets,” says Coccia. “We want them to find their place in society and have as much independence as possible. But there’s so much more violence and hate among people who see our kids as an easy mark. In the last few years, it just seems to have gotten worse.”

2012 study sponsored by the World Health Organization backs up her fears. It reviewed violence against adults with disabilities and found that, overall, they’re 1.5 times more likely to be a victim of violence than those without a disability. Those with mental-health conditions are at nearly four times the risk of experiencing violence.

Jeanne Dowling, 74, who lives in West Chester, says her 45-year-old son, John, who has Down syndrome and lives in a group home, is never permitted to be alone in public.

“He’s high-functioning, funny, charming and extremely social,” she says. “He could probably take a bus by himself and get where he needs to go. I’d trust him to do what he says he will do. But I don’t trust the people he might run into.”

To parents like Dowling, what happened to Smith is the embodiment of their worst fear: That they will not be able to protect their aging, vulnerable sons and daughters from what they cannot see coming.

Looking out for their children is not just a lifelong obligation but one they must plan for well after their own deaths. They go to heroic lengths to assure their children will have, to the best degree possible, what all parents want for their kids: Safety, happiness, independence, meaning, belonging and acceptance. 

On Memorial Day, Smith’s assailants violated all of that in an encounter that appeared friendly but ended with a brutality he didn't know to anticipate. 

Because he's too sweet to think the worst of anyone.