Profits and parenting are on a collision course at Parx Casino. Becoming the quintessential "neighborhood casino" has given Parx the dubious distinction of being the only gambling hall in Pennsylvania where adults have been caught leaving children in vehicles parked outside while they gambled inside.
The increasingly tense clash of parental responsibility and casino accountability could be taken up Aug. 18 before the state Gaming Control Board in Harrisburg.
Thus far, no fines have been levied on Parx because of recurring incidents of child neglect by its patrons. "But the board requested a plan of action to mitigate this problem, and the board reviews any subsequent occurrences to assure that the casino is fulfilling their plan of action," said gaming board spokesman Doug Harbach.
On Friday, former Gov. Ed Rendell, who seven years ago signed the law bringing casinos to Pennsylvania, said: "The gaming board should enact the most significant fines they can under the law for allowing such a situation to occur."
At 2999 Street Rd. in Bensalem, Parx sits in the middle of a highly congested thoroughfare at the heart of a heavily populated community. Observers say it is this proximity to shopping centers, convenience stores, restaurants, and apartments that makes it a prime spot for parental lapses.
A short drive to the Wawa for bread or milk, a quick trip to fill up at one of the many local gas stations, can easily turn into a gambling outing, they say. Parx is literally "on the way," and temptation can become all too irresistible.
"If parents are in the throes of pathological gambling, who knows what the mind-set is?" said Jim Pappas, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling in Pennsylvania. "They become totally neglectful of the circumstances around them. It's like they have tunnel vision."
Other Pennsylvania casinos, by contrast, are more isolated from neighborhood comings and goings. Harrah's in Chester, for example, sits on an industrial strip away from homes and schools and has an indoor parking garage. Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem occupies the former Bethlehem Steel Plant site; I-78 takes customers directly to its enclosed parking garage.
Meadows Racetrack and Casino near Pittsburgh and Hollywood Casino just outside Harrisburg are also in remote locations. Like Parx, both have open surface parking lots, but there have been no arrests of adults who have left children in cars outside.
Drive time has everything to do with becoming addicted, according to a 1999 report by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, which is considered to be the bible on compulsive gambling.
Availability and accessibility are linked, said the report, noting that those who lived within a 50-mile radius of a casino were more than twice as likely to develop significant problems as those who lived between 50 and 250 miles away.
"When you bring a casino that much closer, you're able to visit more frequently and play longer, and it's a lot harder to quit," said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, in Washington. "There's probably an increase in severity of addiction. It impacts things like relapse."
Since 2004, when Pennsylvania opened its borders to gambling to keep residents and casino revenue from flowing to Atlantic City, 10 casinos have opened, with an 11th set to debut next year in Valley Forge.
But lawmakers blinded by gross revenue from slots - more than $2.3 billion in the fiscal year ended June 30, with $1.3 billion in tax revenue going to the state - apparently never saw this sort of thing coming.
In the last 17 months alone, Parx - Pennsylvania's top-grossing casino - saw 10 individuals arrested on its property and charged with endangering the welfare of children left in vehicles while the adults gambled inside.
In just the last week: Michael Roytman, 29, of Huntingdon Valley was charged with leaving his 6-year-old daughter in his car in sweltering heat and was jailed after failing to post $75,000 bail; Frances Casey, 39, of Abington, was charged in connection with leaving two nephews, ages 1 and 2, and a 9-year-old niece in her automobile July 16. She is to be issued a court summons.
Parx is taking action on the matter, said casino spokeswoman Carrie Nork-Minelli.
"This is the action of irresponsible adults, and we do our best to combat it with the highest level of security and surveillance possible," she said. "We've added additional security teams and patrol units - that are not required by the Gaming Control Board - to help with this type of deplorable activity."
But the most recent incidents have occurred despite those stepped-up measures.
"The question arises: How is it that any adult can be so consumed with gambling that the welfare of the child is ignored?" State Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Bucks), a staunch critic of gambling, wrote Tuesday in a letter addressed to Gaming Control Board executive director Kevin O'Toole.
Clymer urged the board to open an investigation into Parx's ongoing child-abandonment troubles.
Those charged with leaving children unattended have been placed on an exclusion list at Parx and are barred from the property.
But that's not nearly enough, say addiction counselors such as Jeffrey Beck, clinical director at the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey. Many of Parx's patrons come from the Garden State, traveling there easily via the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge or the Trenton-Morrisville Toll Bridge.
"The better course is to treat them as with an illness . . . ," Beck said. "It's an impulse-control disorder - you have the urge to do something despite knowing the negative consequences."
And if one is in the grip of gambling addiction, Beck urged: "The first thing to do is to take care of the kids, and to have at least some type of a safety plan of where to put them. Maybe have a family member to drop them off to."