Case Of Children Left In Hot Car Outside Casino Draws Sharp Gaming Board Discussion

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It is common for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to add individuals to its involuntary exclusion list each month, barring them from casinos for various infractions such as theft and cheating.

But the Feb. 10 meeting added an unusually high 19 names to a list that already exceeded 900, and one case in particular drew anxious discussion over how casinos handle cases of potential child endangerment.

The board had no hesitation permanently barring 42-year-old Michael Harper of Philadelphia from casinos for having left a 4-year-old and 2-year-old in a car for about a half hour at Rivers Casino Philadelphia while he placed a sports wager last Aug. 2. It was 93 degrees outside at the time and the car windows were cracked about a half-inch, the gaming board’s Bureau of Investigations and Enforcement reported.

The casino’s security officers found Harper and had him permanently evicted. However, state police who are stationed at the casino did not arrive before he drove off, nor did local police who may file child neglect charges in such cases, according to the documents presented to the board by its Office of Enforcement Counsel.

Board member Sean Logan, a former state senator, has been adamant in the past that casino patrons leaving children unattended in cars should be punished, and he found Harper’s case disturbing — from the standpoint of not just police and the casino but the investigation by the board’s own staff.

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“Nobody can tell me a 2-year-old and 4-year-old should be in a car without state police going there, and Michael Harper walks away and doesn’t get charged because local police don’t come?” Logan vented.

“The whole thing is wrong, and the whole thing that [the Office of Enforcement Counsel]  didn’t have the same concerns and questions that I have is concerning.”

Child endangerment third-highest cause of exclusion

The gaming board posts on its website the names and photos of individuals on its involuntary exclusion list, whose past actions indicate their presence in casinos “would be inimical to the interest of the Commonwealth or of licensed gaming therein.”

Child endangerment has been the third most common reason for placement on the list, behind cases of theft and cheating. Parents or guardians, particularly those with gambling fixations, have been known to leave children for periods of time in casino parking lots while indulging themselves inside. The gaming board does not have authority to arrest such individuals, but police frequently take action in such cases when notified.

The staff petition describing Harper’s case said he showed up at Rivers Philadelphia the morning of Aug. 2, and when walking away from his car with the two children inside, another patron inquired, “You’re not leaving the kids in the car, are you?” Harper reportedly continued inside, and the other patron notified casino security what had occurred.

The petition said the staff’s investigation, using casino video surveillance footage, showed Harper left the vehicle at 11:19 a.m., placed a wager at the sportsbook cashier window at 11:48, and returned to the car at 11:50, when security staff met him. While state and Philadelphia city police were notified about the incident, Harper was able to drive off at 11:57 before their arrival.

Board members in addition to Logan felt someone dropped the ball. They weren’t sure who, but they wanted some clarity that it wouldn’t happen again.

If it’s a structural problem, fix it

Board Chairman David Barasch agreed with Logan there were too many unexplained gaps in how long it took the casino’s staff to track down Harper, to get to the car to be sure about the children’s safety, and to obtain response from official police agencies while he was still present.

“If the casino was notified and it took over 20 minutes to get out there to look at the safety of a 2-year-old and 4-year-old, this is a grievous problem that needs to be looked at,” Barasch said. “It’s not enough for us to react and look just at Mr. Harper. … If there is a structural problem here, it is something we have to address with all the casinos rather than wait for the next 2-year-old or 4-year-old to be left in a car.”

It is rare at monthly meetings of the Pennsylvania board for members to engage in much public discussion of agenda items, which they have previously had the chance to discuss privately in an executive session. When they did so this time, including questioning of gaming board staff about the case, the staff did not have ready answers for what occurred in the Harper case.

That prompted Barasch to direct the board’s Office of Enforcement Counsel and staff to review procedures to try to ensure that such cases can be handled more effectively, considering children’s lives could be at stake.

“My concern for the last four years are idiots like Michael Harper leaving kids in cars — in this particular case, a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old,” Logan stressed. “I wish we could do more to people like Michael Harper.”

As of the end of 2019, child endangerment had been responsible for 93 of the 809 instances involving placement on the board’s involuntary exclusion list. More were added last year, although the board’s website listing all such individuals with their names, photos, and descriptions of their infractions has not been updated in recent months.

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Gary Rotstein

Gary is a longtime journalist, having spent three decades covering gambling, state government, and other issues for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in addition to stints as managing editor of the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette and as a reporter for United Press International and the Middletown (Conn.) Press. Contact Gary at gary@usbets.com.

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