Making sure the kids are all right

Southern Nevada has had legal casinos for a long time—almost 80 years, to be precise. So while other states that have just legalized slots are learning how to integrate casinos into their communities, we’ve got a head start. That can translate into big differences in what people believe is and isn’t appropriate at casinos.

Take, for example, the recent flap in Bensalem, Pa. A whopping seven times this summer, parents or grandparents left minors unattended in cars at the aptly named Parx casino north of Philadelphia. A public outcry ensued, with legislation that would make leaving a child unattended in a car a third-degree felony proposed to provide a disincentive for this behavior.

In Las Vegas, where knowingly leaving someone unattended in a vehicle outdoors in the summer is tantamount to murder, the issue is particularly urgent, but it’s a serious problem regardless of the weather. In 2009, 263 children died after being left unattended in cars nationwide, according to None of the incidents is known to have happened at a casino.

Regardless of where they’re abandoned, kids left in vehicles are prone to many hazards. Harrison’s Hope, a nonprofit group in St. Louis that educates the public about the dangers of leaving children alone in and around vehicles, has some sobering reminders about what can go wrong when kids are left by themselves in autos. They can suffer from hyperthermia, possibly fatal, after being left in a hot vehicle. They can be accidentally abducted if the vehicle is stolen, or abducted on purpose. They can set the vehicle in motion. They can start a fire.

Despite the dangers, some parents continue to leave their children in harm’s way. So far this year, Metro responded to 59 incidents of juveniles left alone in cars, none of which (thankfully) resulted in a fatality. That’s a decline from 2009, when parents were caught leaving their children behind in autos 112 times.

According to Metro spokeswoman Barbara Morgan, parents who leave their children unattended are charged with child endangerment. In less severe cases, this is punishable by two years in prison, though incidents resulting in a child’s death may be prosecuted as category A felonies, with a maximum penalty of life in prison.

In addition, the children involved, if they can’t be turned over to a responsible parent or guardian, are taken to Child Haven, the division of the Clark County Department of Family Services that provides temporary shelter for abused and neglected children.

Responsibility starts with the parents or caregivers, but there’s a great deal that casino security can do to prevent children from coming into harm’s way in parking lots. Active security patrols of the surface lots and parking garages, with foot bike, and vehicle-based officers, can find kids left alone before the situation becomes desperate, and officers can remind parents that leaving kids alone is not acceptable.

As Pennsylvania casinos are finding, gambling establishments receive an inordinate amount of publicity in the wake of children being left unattended. It’s no defense to say that the problem is just as bad—or even worse—at supermarkets or shopping malls. That’s why Las Vegas Valley casinos do a better job, apparently, than casinos like Parx when it comes to making sure parents don’t abandon their children while gambling.

According to Nevada Gaming Control Board enforcement chief Jerry Markling, the board’s agents don’t see many instances of kids left unattended outside.

“When we see minors in a casino, it’s generally kids trying to gamble, not young children left unattended,” he says.

Giving the area’s casinos good marks for making sure parents get the message, Markling says if local casinos piled up as many incidents as Parx did this past summer, they’d face an inquiry.

“We would look at it quite seriously, he says. “We’d investigate to see if it was part of a pattern on the part of the licensee and, if so, what they were doing to address the problem. If we found that they were ignoring the problem, then we would take action.”

Las Vegas casinos catering to locals seem to be doing a good job of making sure that parents get the message not to leave their children in cars, and states with newer casinos might want to take a look at what they are doing right.

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