PA Casinos and Politicians Own Gambling Addict Problems

Parents aren't the only ones who should be held accountable for leaving kids in cars in casino parking lots

There’s been a lot of recent hand-wringing and finger-pointing by lawmakers and the gambling industry over what to do about the string of embarrassing incidents where adults have left kids in cars parked outside of the Parx Casino while they gambled inside.

Former governor Ed Rendell, Pennsylvania’s godfather of gambling, says the state’s Gaming Control Board should impose strict fines on the casinos. Parx says it’s the gamblers’ fault. “This is the action of irresponsible adults,” said a spokeswoman for the Bensalem casino. Parx says it has taken steps beyond what the gaming board requires, including more security patrols and warning signs in its parking lot.

Such a lame response from political leaders and the casino industry calls to mind the barnyard euphemism “shit rolls downhill.” Fines and warning signs in parking lots will not stop gambling addicts from leaving kids in cars while they blow the rent money in casinos.

Rendell and the gambling industry instead should be looking in the mirror. They are the ones who are responsible for creating the conditions that have resulted in 10 individuals getting arrested in the last 17 months for leaving kids in cars at Parx. As governor, Rendell pushed to legalize gambling in Pennsylvania. On his watch, the state legalized slots in 2004, and later added full-blown casinos.

State and local lawmakers have been so busy counting the tax windfall from gambling that they have ignored the fact that the revenue comes by extracting wealth from the very citizens they are sworn to protect—leading to increased social ills like crime, divorce and bankruptcies, and breeding gambling addicts. (Full disclosure: I am a fellow at a think tank where I edit a blog focused on the negative impact of gambling.)

Last week, a 29-year-old Huntingdon Valley man was charged with child abandonment after leaving his six-year-old daughter in his car outside Parx on a steamy day. A 39-year-old Abington woman was charged after she left two nephews, ages one and two, and a nine-year-old niece in her car outside Park on July 16th.

The state gaming board may take up the issue when it meets August 18th. Contrary to published reports, this is not an isolated problem at Parx.

Last November, a couple left three kids—a 10-month-old girl, a three-year-old boy and a 10-year-old boy—in a minivan while they gambled in the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh. There have been similar incidents at casinos around the country, including several where children have died. As more casinos open nationwide, the problem will likely become more epidemic than aberration.

Who knows how many other kids have been left in cars undetected or left at home alone? Clearly, some gamblers are blinded by their addiction. No person in his right mind would leave his child in a car so he could aimlessly pump quarters into a slot machine.

Granted, individuals are ultimately responsible for their actions. No one makes anyone go to a casino. But Pennsylvania and other states have made it easy to gamble by opening casinos close to home as opposed to having to fly to Las Vegas or drive to Atlantic City.

Such availability and accessibility is why the 1999 National Gambling Impact Study Commission found that people who live within a 50-mile radius of a casino are more than twice as likely to develop gambling problems compared with those who live farther away. The study undercuts Rendell’s argument that Pennsylvania’s casino customers would have gambled anyway, but now the state benefits from the tax revenue. (Using that logic, the state should legalize prostitution and collect the taxes.)

Granted, Atlantic City has been hurt by the opening of Pennsylvania casinos. But the difference is that instead of traveling to Atlantic City a handful of times a year, many Pennsylvania gamblers go to Parx and other local casinos dozens, if not hundreds, of times a year. Hence the sharp rise in calls to Pennsylvania’s gambling help line and the string of gamblers going to such extremes to get a bet down that they have left kids in cars outside of casinos.

Studies suggest that newer high-tech slot machines can be addictive for some gamblers. If so, should the state be enabling an activity that is addictive and destroys lives?

It is probably just a matter of time before a child gets injured or dies outside a Pennsylvania casino, while the guardian is inside gambling. To be sure, any adult who abandons a child should be prosecuted, but the casinos and the lawmakers who legalized gambling remain the co-conspirators. No steep fine or parking-lot warning sign is going to get them off the hook.

Paul Davies spent 25 years in the newspaper business, including stops at the Daily News, the Inquirer and the Wall Street Journal. He can be reached at