MOUNT VERNON — Not even the most fervent casino investor can deny that the road from the slot machines and blackjack tables can take a person down a dark, steep decline.
A University of Iowa study says the number of pathological gamblers by one measure is now at about 1.4 percent of Iowans, a slight percentage decline in its study since 1995, and the Office of Problem Gambling Treatment and Prevention now puts that number at about 3 percent.
Somewhere in between the borders of those percentages is where people like Judy Askew have landed.
Askew, 65, is celebrating two years without having placed a bet in a slot machine or bought scratch-off lottery tickets at a neighborhood convenience store. But she still carries around a felony theft conviction, has a probation office to answer to and monthly whittles away at a gambling debt of more than $50,000 that she won’t pay off until she’s over 100. She lives on Social Security and a tiny additional income in a little apartment in Mount Vernon, has children who won’t talk to her and an aunt in a nearby nursing home, from whom she stole, that she isn’t allowed to visit.
“Nobody’s talking to me anyway,” she says of family and friends and her willingness to talk in a newspaper. “So what do I care? If it will stop one person from gambling … .”
On the run up to Tuesday’s vote to allow casino gaming in Linn County, those opposed to a Cedar Rapids casino can lean on the stories of the Judy Askews, but those in favor of the casino can, too. Askew says she didn’t need a Cedar Rapids casino for her troubles. Her go-to casino was just a 45-minute drive away at Riverside, south of Iowa City.
As Askew tells it, she could never win at the slot machines because she could never stop when she was winning until she lost it all. It was not uncommon, she says, for her to go to the Riverside casino in the evening and still be there the next morning. She says she would camp at a particular machine or machines, not wanting to leave for fear the next person would hit the big one she had been preparing the machines to deliver. At times she waited as long as she could before going to the restroom.
“When I think about it, it wasn’t fun,” Askew says. “It was work.”
Traci Kent, a licensed social worker and counselor at the Substance Abuse Services Center’s Gambling Treatment Program in Cedar Rapids, says one of the best comments she’s ever heard from those who seek help for gambling is that the greatest feeling a problem gambler knows is the feeling of winning and the second greatest feeling is losing.
“It’s not always about money,” Kent says. “It’s the excitement.”
She says gambling addiction and the treatment for it is very much like alcoholism and substance abuse and the treatment for those addictions. The penny slot machine, with all the lights and noises, is the “the crack cocaine of gambling,” she says.
In her experience, few if any problem gamblers call the state’s 26-year-old gambling helpline, 1-800-BETS-OFF, or the local 24-hour helpline, 1-888-771-6771, on the way to the casino. They call on the way home, “when they are willing to look at themselves, when they are hurting,” she says. Many times, “concerned others” make the call, and Kent’s office provides treatment for them as well.
Counselor Traci Kent encourages gamblers to go www.treatmentfirst.org, hit on FAQs and see if they see themselves there.
Mark Vander Linden, the program manager of the Office of Problem Gambling Treatment and Prevention at the Iowa Department of Public Health, convened a workshop in April because the number of people seeking treatment for gambling problems in Iowa has been in decline. The program has 10 licensed providers offering services in 49 cities as well as distance treatment options.
“People seeking help for gambling problems is a tricky issue,” Vander Linden says. He says “avenues” exist to get people with substance abuse problems into treatment, but those aren’t necessarily there for people with gambling problems. Older people who mention a problem to their physician or at a senior center, for instance, might not find their way to treatment, he says.
He says that gaming in Iowa today has “kind of woven itself into the culture,” and he notes that there are 20 casinos (including two American Indian ones), some 2,400 state lottery outlets and a “robust market” of other community gaming opportunities like bingo. Gaming is in every county and every town in the state, he said.
Even so, Vander Linden said, Iowans also have “tormented relations” with gaming. It is widely available and accepted, but a recent survey found a majority of Iowans say gambling is dangerous for family life.
Initially, state law required that three-tenths of 1 percent of adjusted gross revenue from casinos and the state lottery go for prevention and treatment, an amount that increased to one-half of 1 percent in 2005. In the 2009, the Iowa Legislature eliminated the special fund, and the state gambling program competes for an allocation from the state general fund. The program had been receiving about $4.3 million a year before the latest change, and now receives between $3.1 million and $3.2 million, Vander Linden reports.
The money is sufficient, he says, to provide treatment at regional offices throughout the state, adding he wants to make sure that the state, too, is providing a comprehensive prevention program.
Some 12 percent to 14 percent of gamblers are “risky” gamblers, and he says he wants to make sure “they don’t cross the line” and become problem gamblers.