Gamblers leave their kids in cars almost everywhere there are casinos

Jeff Barker Contact Reporter The Baltimore Sun, March 18, 2017
Documents: Mother left child in car for seven hours while she gambled at Baltimore casino.

The 4-year-old girl, in her pink coat and leggings, had been sitting in the Silverado truck outside the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore for nearly seven hours on Thanksgiving night before two customers spotted her.

It was 4:48 in the morning, the temperature had dropped into the mid-40s, and security officers decided they needed to break into the truck.

Police took the cold, hungry, shoeless girl to a hospital for an examination and a bowl of cereal. Casino security officers set out to find her mother.

Guerra Perez was playing a slot machine, the officers reported.

Handcuffed and charged with neglect on that November 2015 morning, the 22-year-old became another in a string of Marylanders accused of abandoning a child while gambling at a casino

As opportunities to gamble in Maryland have expanded, so has a problem associated with casinos everywhere: the neglect and abandonment of children and other vulnerable people. With the opening of the state’s sixth casino in December — the giant MGM National Harbor in Prince George’s County — Maryland is among the country’s most saturated gambling markets.

The recurring cases in which kids — and, in 2014, a 98-year-old woman — have been left alone in cars while their guardians gamble present a dark contrast to the bright lights of casino floors. The cases also illustrate the challenge the state faces to contain problems associated with lucrative gambling operations.

State Del. Nick Mosby is sponsoring legislation to boost funding to treat problem gamblers. The state currently charges casinos annual fees of $425 per slot machine and $500 per table game to support responsible gambling programs — assessments that generated more than $3.8 million in the most recent fiscal year.

“We know we are currently underfunded, especially when you see the expansion of gambling in Maryland,” the Baltimore Democrat said.

Fourteen children were abandoned outside the state’s casinos during the last two calendar years, according to Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency records obtained by The Baltimore Sun under the Public Information Act.

In September 2015, two children — ages 9 and 10 — abandoned in a car at Horseshoe told a security officer “that their father had entered the casino saying that he was going to get some money that the casino owed him,” gaming regulators reported. The father, who was playing craps, was arrested and charged with child endangerment.

Two months later, a 2-year-old was left in a car at Horseshoe while his uncle played blackjack. The child was discovered by two casino patrons.

At Western Maryland’s Rocky Gap Casino in 2015, a security supervisor found three children — all under 9 — “who appeared to be upset and advised that they can’t find their parents,” regulators reported. When they were spotted by casino patrons, the kids had left the car and were standing alone in the parking lot.

In October, a worker at Bobby’s Burger Palace at Maryland Live in Hanover told security a mother had left a 7-year-old girl in the restaurant for a brief period while she gambled, according to regulators. Maryland Live banned the woman for seven days.

The safety awareness group Kids and Cars has chronicled more than 300 cases of child abandonment at casinos nationwide since 2000. Organization founder Janette Fennell said the count was “at best the tip of the iceberg,” because “we only find out when it is covered by the media.” No Maryland cases were reported in the first two months of this year.

It’s more common, she says, that drivers unintentionally leave their kids in cars as they go to work, shop for groceries or run errands. That has happened tens of thousands of times, she says. An average of 37 such kids annually die of heatstroke.

Fennell sees a big difference between forgetting your toddler in the backseat — a lapse that has been committed by “some of the best parents you would ever want to meet” — and abandoning him or her at a casino.

Abandonment at a casino is more likely to be deliberate — Maryland doesn’t allow people under 21 on the gaming floor — and Fennell believes prosecutors should seek penalties “every time a child is knowingly left in a vehicle.”

It is against Maryland law to leave a child under 8 confined in a building or car without someone who is at least 13 to supervise.

Fennell said she is pushing for technology to alert drivers as they leave their cars if a passenger remains in the backseat. She also favors child care in casinos — a smattering of casinos nationally, including the large Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, already offer it.

The American Gaming Association, a casino industry group, said it has no position on casino child care. The group has partnered with Kids and Cars to raise awareness of kids left in cars.

“Whether it’s at a grocery store, a theme park, a shopping mall or a casino, we all want to prevent these situations from occurring.,” said Sara Slane, the association’s senior vice president of public affairs.

Casinos can be mesmerizing environments in which it is easy to lose track of time. Often, they do not display clocks. Some players imagine they will stay for a short period, only to find that hours have slipped away.

‘It’s a pretty common consequence of gambling addiction that you become so preoccupied that you lose track of time, so the kid stays in the car,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the The National Council on Problem Gambling. “They create an immersive environment where there is not a lot of outside stimuli.”

On the night Perez left her child in the Horsehoe parking garage, she returned to the car twice — once for nine minutes and once for a few hours, surveillance video showed.

It’s uncertain whether she was checking up on the girl, and her attorney said she could not shed light on the matter.

“This is a really young lady who went to the casino with other adults and she made a bad decision that night,” said Elizabeth Lawrence, Perez’s attorney. “She’s been very remorseful. She is not somebody who goes to the casino frequently.”

Horseshoe officials declined comment.

Perez was held briefly at Baltimore City Detention Center while Child Protective Services took custody of her daughter for a time, according to District Court records. A man and a woman who had accompanied her to the casino were not charged but were issued eviction notices by the casino, state compliance officials reported.

Child Protective Services would not discuss Perez’s case. Spokeswoman Katherine Morris said agency workers generally “do not want to remove children from their parents and will try to keep children at home whenever that is possible.”

In a deal with the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office last May, Perez pleaded guilty to second-degree assault, a misdemeanor that can include placing someone in fear of harm. She received a five-year suspended sentence with three years probation. She was ordered to participate in a program to prevent child abuse and neglect, submit to drug and alcohol screening, attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings and stay out of Maryland casinos.

“This is an example of our office assessing the case holistically, and attaining justice for the minor victim, while still requiring the defendant to participate in rehabilitative services as part of her sentence so that she could get back on track as a productive parent and citizen,” said Melba Saunders, a spokeswoman for the state’s attorney’s office.

Lawrence said that Perez, a single mother, was permitted to keep the child, now 6.

“She was able to show she was a good mother,” she said. “She did everything that Child Protective Services and the magistrate wanted her to do.”

Two years earlier, on New Year’s Eve 2013, a Baltimore woman was accused of leaving her 5-year-old daughter in a car at the Maryland Live parking garage for eight hours. Temperatures were near freezing.

The child was spotted by security workers. Doctors called to the scene said the child was cold and hungry, but otherwise in good health.

Alicia Brown pleaded guilty to endangering the child. She was sentenced to five days in jail and three years probation, and was ordered to stay out of casinos.

Her lawyer told the court that Brown, a working single mother of two, was sinking into debt, owing back rent and facing a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. shutoff notice.

Last week, A man who answered the phone at Brown’s last listed address in Baltimore identified himself as her father, Leroy H. Brown. He said he is no longer in touch with her.

“She doesn’t live here,” he said. “I don’t know where she is.”

Maryland Live, which had one child abandonment case in 2016, “employs proactive measures” to deter such behavior, president Robert Norton said. He said security in the garage “is of paramount importance” and staff is trained “to look for signs of distress.”

Researchers at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County estimated in 2011 that about 150,000 Maryland adults — 3.4 percent of those who had ever gambled — experienced moderate to severe difficulties from problem gambling. They estimated the number of gamblers at risk of developing gambling issues at 397,900, or about 9 percent.

The Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling is overseeing a follow-up study to reassess gambling prevalence and problems now that MGM and other casinos have opened.

Mosby, whose legislation was approved Saturday by the House of Delegates, said there is already enough need to justify spending more on treatment. His legislation would increase problem gambling program funds by nearly $1 million.

The fund is already expected to grow this year from $3.8 million to more than $5 million now that MGM, which operates 3,212 slot machines and 165 table games, is also contributing.

Whyte, of the problem gambling council, said Maryland has built a solid structure — training counselors and operating a 24-hour help line — but has not provided sufficient funding for treatment itself. That, he said, has often left counseling available only to those who can afford it, have adequate insurance or are eligible under Medicaid.

The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which oversees the funding, said gambling disorders have gradually become more prevalent. In the past, money for such treatment was often mingled with funds to treat substance abuse — which often occurs in tandem with gambling problems — or general mental health issues.

But this year, $1.6 million is earmarked for treatment of gambling problems.

“We applaud them for filling a hole,” Whyte said. “We’ll be there watching to make sure the program is done well.”

Mosby said the frequency of gamblers leaving kids alone points to the larger addiction problem facing the state.

“If you get so caught up in gambling and forget that your child has been in the car for several hours, you have a serious problem,” Mosby said. “It’s not an anomaly.”

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Posted on Friday, June 9th, 2017 at 4:25 pm in category Latest News, Other Dangers