Two people landed on the Involuntary Exclusion List at Pennsylvania casinos for leaving children alone in a car while they gambled during the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board meeting in March. In both instances, the children were 8-years-old.
It is not an uncommon occurrence. Nearly every month, similar incidents get described in detail where a parent or guardian leaves a child or children, sometimes as young as one, alone in a car.
Certain times, it’s only for a few minutes while they place bets in the sportsbook. In other instances, kids wait unattended in a car for hours as their parents play slots or table games.
Since 2011, 134 individuals landed on the Involuntary Exclusion List for this type of incident.
No matter the circumstances, many ask, “what were they thinking.”
Gregory A. Krausz, MA, CAADC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor who is the Director of Mid Atlantic Rehabilitation Services in Bethlehem, PA, and a consultant/trainer with the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania along with a host of other roles. He has been a counselor and program director in the addiction and mental health counseling field for the past 27 years.
Krausz shared his experience and insights on the subject of kids being left unattended on a casino property with Play Pennsylvania. Is it a problem gambling or a parenting issue? And what is the thought process behind these decisions?
Kids in cars at casinos: Inside the mind of a problem gambler
Cars aren’t the only place kids are being left alone. A woman landed on the Involuntary Exclusion List in March 2020 for allegedly leaving her two grandchildren, ages five and three, alone in a hotel room while she played at Mohegan Sun Casino.
It’s hard for many to understand why someone would leave a child unattended in a car or hotel room to gamble. What are they thinking?
“One of the challenges is that gambling problems lead to a strong focus on continuing the gambling behavior. The relationship with gambling can become the focus of an individual’s life and takes priority over other relationships. Most of these circumstances are not an intentional decision. Many times the thought is ‘I’ll go in for a short time and be right back.’ Then, 15 minutes turns into hours as gambling impacts our thinking. Dissociation during gambling for someone with a problem may occur. The type of feeling where they are outside their body, lose track of time, and that their children may have been waiting in the car.”
Josh Ercole, Executive Director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of PA, added:
“We’ve seen it from the perspective of the parent who has done it. They are talking about it from the perspective of a person who is struggling and has developed a problem and would not have done this under normal circumstances prior to developing an issue.”
The brain of a gambling addict
Brain imaging and neurochemical tests classify gambling disorders. There is much in common with the impact of gambling and drugs on the brain in the way they activate the brain’s reward system.
Ercole commented on a compulsive gambler’s brain:
“There’s a completely different way it’s processed in their brain. The way their chemistry is reacting to it. It’s not in a logical straightforward manner like it would be for you or I. Just like people who don’t understand drug addiction, it’s truly hard to understand gambling addiction.”
A gambling addiction or bad parenting problem
Problem gambling exacerbates other issues like depression and anxiety. It can also create or worsen parenting problems. Krausz pointed out they have a higher incidence of suicide than the general population and increased physical health problems.
“The relationship with gambling for a problem gambler impacts many life areas including how we parent. Sometimes there were parenting issues prior to gambling being a problem and sometimes gambling problems create the circumstances that lead to these types of parenting issues,” added Krausz. “That is similar to other concerns that gambling can create for individuals with gambling problems.”
A sensitive topic
Kids left unattended on casino property isn’t just a problem in Pennsylvania. It happens at other casinos across the country. Through his work with the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania, Ercole noted that not every instance is caused by a parent who is a compulsive gambler.
“It’s an unfortunate situation where there are very negligent parents who have a lot going on. Some of it might be gambling related. Some of it might be mental health or the environment they were raised in.”
Ercole repeated it was a sensitive topic and that, in many instances, it is hard for many who have not experienced or have first-hand knowledge to fully understand.
“Good people with a bad problem”
It would be very naive to think only 134 people have left their kids alone in cars to gamble at PA casinos since 2011. The number is undoubtedly much higher.
In that number, the “134” or the “number we don’t know” Krausz wants us to remember that with every piece of data related to problem gambling, there is a human being with a problem and help and recovery is possible.
“Each story we read about a child in a car, there are people behind that story and they have a problem with gambling and are most often not bad people. Our attachments and relationships with gambling leads us to doing bad things that we would likely not engage in if we were not in an unhealthy relationship with gambling.”
“Many gamblers are good people with a bad problem. Problem gambling makes us do things that we otherwise wouldn’t. Many people I work with who have gambling problems when they enter recovery are some of the kindest, most caring people you will meet. Our attachment to gambling when it becomes a problem changes the way we think.”
Regulators take action
PGCB Commissioner Sean Logan is not in a gambling mood, especially when it comes to children’s lives. He’s been fiery on the topic for years. At each meeting, he follows up with questions about how kids were found (often by other patrons and not casino security) and if charges were filed.
In an interview with Play Pennsylvania in May 2021, Logan made it clear that all parties needed to do more.
“The PGCB, the casinos, the state police, the local police. We are all complicit in this, including myself, to let this go on. Our luck is going to end. We are going to run out of time. For the life of me, I can’t see how someone leaves their kid or kids in a car unattended to go into a casino. It obviously hasn’t curtailed. It always seems like it’s 20, 30, 40 minutes. A whole hell of a lot of bad can happen in that time.”
Action did follow. Public hearings for the proposed casino at Nittany Mall at State College and a hotel at Rivers Casino Pittsburgh were met with questions from the PGCB on how they would prevent and detect unattended children.
The PGCB also started to publicize the issue by sending out press releases starting in Oct. 2021.
PGCB Director of Communication Doug Harbach said:
“The PGCB felt it was a necessary step to amplify the Commissioners’ concern to the press and public in order to draw more attention to the matter that we hope trickles down to adults who may contemplate leaving a child unattended to gamble. This was first step to make the public more aware of the issue. The PGCB is looking at how to further draw attention to the unattended children issue.”
Casinos and sportsbooks take measures to prevent unattended kids
The recently opened Parx Race and Sportsbook at Chickie’s and Pete’s in Malvern have signs in the parking lot reminding patrons not to leave children alone in cars. On a recent visit to the sportsbook, after checking my ID, the attendant asked if I had any children alone in the car.
Valley Forge Casino and representatives from owner Boyd Gaming presented a six-part plan to increase detection and enforcement for unattended children. In a groundbreaking measure, Valley Forge Casino installed infrared cameras to detect and locate kids left alone in cars.
Compulsive and problem gambling help in PA
There are various free resources available to help you or someone you know get help for problem gambling.
- Call 1-800-Gambler
- Visit the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania at www.pacouncil.com
- ResponsiblePlay offers live chat, information and how to sign up for self-exclusion
Lead image c/o Shutterstock