Some visitors at Pennsylvania casinos have had the ultimate luck.
They left children in the car while they went into casinos. When they returned, the found their kids unharmed. The child wasn’t suffering from heat stroke. They didn’t choke on a handful of Cheerios. Their toddler didn’t decide to wander the parking lot and get struck by an SUV.
In 2020, 19 people were placed on Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board’s involuntary exclusion list for child endangerment. In nearly all instances, it was the result of leaving children unattended in a vehicle. Twenty-one children were left abandoned in vehicles at casinos in 2020.
In the vast majority of the cases, casino security was not the first to notice a child.
“It always seems to be another patron passing the car and noticing a kid is unattended,” PGCB Commissioner Sean Logan told PlayPennsylvania. “It leads me to believe everyone needs 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.”
Kids left in cars at casinos
(Information provided by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board)
Number of people in Pennsylvania placed on the involuntary exclusion list since 2015 for child endangerment
Number of children left abandoned in vehicles since 2015
In 2020, Pennsylvania casinos were closed a third of the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The gender breakdown for people placed on the list due to child endangerment was a fairly even split each year between male and female.
What happens when a child is found alone in a car?
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board’s monthly meetings have occurred online since March 2020 due to the pandemic. The last segment of the meeting pertains to matters of the Office of Enforcement Counsel. There are consent agreements, suspended employees and individuals being placed on the PGCB’s involuntary exclusion list.
The most common reasons for non-voluntary exclusion are theft, cheating and child endangerment. If an individual is placed on the non-voluntary exclusion list they are banned from licensed gaming facilities. Those who have been on the list for at least five years can apply for removal.
What happens when a child is left unattended in a vehicle at a casino?
According to Logan, in the most recent cases, other patrons spot them and notify security. Or the kid will get out of the car and go into the casino where they are spotted by security.
Then, the security lead is notified to identify the parent/guardian. When they are found, they are told to immediately return to their vehicle. State and local police are notified. The casino’s surveillance department is informed and the PGCB agents are notified to write up an incident report.
Law enforcement responds to the incident and they decide whether to press charges against the parent/guardian. The most common charge is endangering the welfare of a child.
“Shame on the local police for not doing more”
Michael Harper went to Rivers Casino Philadelphia and allegedly left his two kids, ages four and two, unattended in his vehicle for thirty minutes. On that early August 2020 day, it was 93 degrees outside. The windows were cracked about a half inch.
In the parking lot before entering the casino, Harper allegedly encountered another Rivers patron who warned him not to leave the kids alone. The patron then contacted security.
Logan questioned the response time during the February 2021 PGCB meeting.
“If the casino was notified and took over twenty minutes to get out there to take a look at the safety of a two- and a four-year-old, this is a grievous problem that needs to be looked at.
“My concern is…and it has been for the last four years…are idiots like Michael Harper leaving kids in cars. I have been crystal clear that I wish we could do more to people like him. Shame on the local police department for not doing more.”
Legal charges dependent on PA State Police
According to the transcript from the PGCB meeting, Harper allegedly left the casino before police arrived. He was not charged.
“How is that possible if we have Pennsylvania State Police onsite?” asked Logan.
“I don’t know. There’s no record that PSP responded to the scene,” answered Dustin Miller, PGCB Deputy Chief Enforcement Counsel.
“There’s gaps. At least for thirteen minutes. And the PSP doesn’t believe it’s prudent…necessary to go to the garage?” asked Logan.
“I can’t speak for them,” replied Miller.
“But nobody can tell me that a two and a four-year-old should be in a car without the PSP going there and then Harper walks away and doesn’t get charged because local police don’t come?”
The usually objective and even-tempered PGCB Chairman David Barasch called Logan’s points “extremely valid.”
“It’s not enough for us to just be reacting and saying, ‘Okay, we took care of Mr. Harper.’ If there are structural problems in this casino or any other casino, we have an obligation to do something about that,” Barasch said.
Signage, security and possibly more solutions to come
Casinos are not required to have signage in garages or elevator banks that remind patrons not to leave children in the car. In addition, casinos are expected to monitor surface lots and garages. Since the first Pennsylvania casinos opened in 2006, the Pennsylvania State Police have been providing law enforcement services at each of the casinos.
The PGCB has explored if promotional emails or push-text messages from casinos were to blame for children being left unattended. However, they concluded that expiring promotional play wasn’t the reason.
Posting a security guard at the entrance of garages could be a possible solution for some casinos. However, a number of casinos in PA don’t have a parking garage.
“All of us have to do more. it’s not an easy solution,” Logan repeatedly said during PGCB meetings and in a recent interview with PlayPennsylvania. He stressed that was including himself, too.
“We are going to do more. We are working on it. Nobody should be surprised if we come up with more stringent ways to prevent people from leaving kids in cars.”
Whatever the PGCB decides to do to increase awareness and safety in regards to children being left unattended in vehicles while their guardians gamble shouldn’t surprise casinos, or anyone who has listened to the meetings. Logan has gotten more frustrated and angry. He is past pleading and ready for action because as anyone involved in gambling knows, your luck is going to run out sooner or later.
Signage not required
As noted above, casinos do not have to post signs reminding patrons about children left in cars. Over the weekend, PlayPennsylvania went to Harrah’s Philadelphia, Rivers Casino Philadelphia, Valley Forge Casino and Live! Casino Philadelphia. Only Harrah’s had a sign outside of elevator banks mentioning children.
PlayPennsylvania also went to Target, Walmart and the King of Prussia Mall to see if there was any signage there. There were no signs about leaving kids in cars at the King of Prussia Target or Walmart.
At the King of Prussia Mall, the largest mall on the East Coast, there was a sign at one of the entrances.
Childcare at casinos?
Most casinos, especially casinos outside of Las Vegas, do not offer child care on premises.
One Pennsylvania casino – Wind Creek Casino Bethlehem – does present an option. Kids Quest at Wind Creek offers childcare for children ranging in age from six weeks to twelve-years-old. Hours and pricing vary.
Why you should not children alone in a car
- Heatstroke or hypothermia
- Car theft
- Power windows can kill or injure a child
- The child could set the car in motion
- Seatbelts pose a strangulation risk
- Abductions and kidnapping
- Choking hazards
- Risk of child getting out of the car
Sue Auriemma, vice president of KidsandCars.org, told ABC News that there is never a situation where it’s safe to leave a child alone in a car.
“A car is not a babysitter,” Auriemma said. “People have said to me, ‘for just a short period of time. It’s just a few minutes. It’s OK.’ To me, that’s akin to saying you need to go far away from your home before you get into a car accident so within a mile of your house you don’t need your seat belt. It can happen in an instant.”
Warnings from the PA Department of Health
The Pennsylvania Department of Health also provided additional information.
“Leaving a young child alone in a vehicle during warm weather is not only dangerous, but it also could be illegal. Leaving a child alone in a car can lead to serious injury or death from heatstroke, especially as summer rolls around in Pennsylvania,” said a PA Dept. of Health spokesperson.
Additional insight provided by the Dept. of Health includes:
- Heatstroke is the leading cause of non-crash, vehicle-related deaths for children.
- Keep your vehicle locked when not in use so children can’t get in on their own.
- Create reminders by putting something in the back of your car next to your child such as a briefcase, a purse or a cell phone that is needed at your final destination.
- In extreme heat, cracking a window open and parking in the shade are not sufficient safeguards.
If someone sees a child/children alone in a car, what should they do?
According to the PA Dept. of Health, the best thing to do is immediately call 911 and follow the instructions of the emergency dispatcher. Parents or caregivers who leave a child in a hot car may face serious charges, including endangering the welfare of children.
In 2017, Logan stepped down from his role as the Chairman of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to join the PGCB. Logan is a former Monroeville mayor and Democratic state senator from Plum.
When instances come up at the PGCB about children being left in cars while their guardians gamble in casinos, Logan has made it a point to question the circumstances around it and voice his displeasure. In a phone interview, PlayPennsylvania asked why this was such a hot-button issue for him. Logan noted he was speaking on behalf of himself and not the whole Board. The instances of children being left in cars while their guardians gambled always perplexed him.
“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.”
“I don’t know what more I can say to get someone’s attention”
At the April 2021 PGCB meeting, Jameila Mack was placed on the involuntary exclusion list. She allegedly left her twelve-year-old and five-year-old old unattended for two hours (between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m.) while she played at Harrah’s Casino Philadelphia.
A patron reported seeing the children alone in the car.
Logan said at the meeting:
“You have a twelve- and five-year-old in a car for two hours. How does that happen and continue to happen? I don’t know what more I can say that gets someone’s attention. Is anything going to happen to Harrah’s?
Cyrus Pitre, PGCB Chief Enforcement Counsel, said that the security assigned to the garage was assisting with “the drop,” which is when money and vouchers are pulled from tables and slot machines. Security provides an escort to the staff conducting the drop to the soft count room.
“We are working with Harrah’s to ensure they have additional security to cover the garage during those time periods. We are in the process of conducting assessments of all the casinos, especially those that have had problems with kids left in cars or robberies to ensure there is adequate security 24/7 and that there is enough surveillance. It’s going to take time to get that done and improve internal controls.”
“There has to be something we can do before a kid dies”
In August 2019, Milady Borda allegedly left three children: an eight-year-old, three-year-old, and one-year-old, alone in the car in the parking lot of Wind Creek Bethlehem. She went inside the casino and gamed for over two hours. The temperature that day was an average of 79 degrees.
During the Oct. 2019 PGCB meeting, Logan said:
“I always say, I wish there was more we could do with folks like Milady Borda. Somebody has to come up with some additional sanction when you leave kids like this in a car. This is absolutely blowing my mind that we have sat here for four years – at least I’ve sat here for four years – and we can’t find another mechanism. I know, potentially our hands are tied, but then somebody should come up with a recommendation that we can make to the general assembly, because this is just absolutely crazy.
“And I wish I could scream Milady Borda’s name to everyone. And I wish I could call her employer, if she has one. But, there has to be something else we can do to penalize these people before a kid dies.”
A child advocate offers insight
Leslie Slingsby is the executive director of Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center, a Montgomery County, PA non-profit that provides multidisciplinary care to alleged victims of sexual and physical abuse.
“We (Mission Kids) certainly get more calls (about kids being left in cars) in relation to casinos. It’s often related to an addiction to gambling. These individuals are making poor and illegal decisions in terms of putting the welfare of their child in danger because of their addiction. Should they be held accountable? Yes. But we also need to check on if there is any other type of neglect.”
Slingsby explained that the biggest dangers to unattended children in vehicles is heat stroke. Heat stroke can cause damage to the brain and other organs and possibly lead to death.
“When it’s just above 70 degrees, that’s when we get concerned because children’s bodies don’t respond to heat the same way adult bodies do. They heat up much faster,” said Slingsby.
Slingsby agrees that increased security would be a great prevention method to make sure kids are found faster if left unattended.
Bad parenting or problem gambling?
Why would a parent leave a young child alone in a car to gamble in a casino?
Is this a problem gambling issue or is it a parenting issue?
“I definitely think it is a problem gambling issue,” said Slingsby. “We see this pattern of behavior when parents are addicted to all sorts of things whether it is gambling, drugs or alcohol. this is an addicted mind rationalizing this behavior.”
PGCB Executive Director Kevin O’Toole said:
“It’s a parenting issue first and foremost.”
“If you are leaving your kid in a car at the casino, you are doing it elsewhere.”
The highest stakes
Millions of people visit Pennsylvania casinos each year. It would be naive to think that in 2020 only 21 children were left unattended in a vehicle while parents or guardians gambled at a casino.
“For me, that’s a terribly terrifying number we don’t know,” said Logan. “By the grace of God, they went in and when they came out, their child wasn’t harmed. How many of those that are not reported is so alarming to me because we are going to run out of time. You can have all the legislation in place for any issue, but people are still going to be stupid and act reckless. I hope we can do something so we can prevent that one kid from being harmed. We are never going to be able to fix stupid, though.”
All streaks come to an end. And this one – the streak of not one child dying or suffering serious injury from being left alone in a car on casino property – has the highest stakes, a child’s life.
The PGCB, Pennsylvania casinos, state and local police all need to work together to solve the problem before the luck runs out.
Lead image via Dreamstime.