Gambling addiction in Fremont County could be on rise, but not on radar

Nov 30, 2012

HOST: There have been rumors that Fremont County is experiencing a rise in gambling addiction amongst its residents. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports that whether the rumors are true or not is still unclear, but some services are popping up to address it regardless.

ZHOROV: The Wind River Hotel and Casino in Riverton is full of chirping slot machines, game tables, bright lights, and…gamblers.

There are differing opinions regarding how much good gaming has brought to the county and tribes. But there is also concern about gambling addictions.

ANNA: In 2006 is when I probably started gambling compulsively…

ZHOROV: That’s a compulsive-gambler-in-recovery we’ll call Anna, who did not want her real name used.

ANNA: Started out just like everyone else, going out with $20, went out with my friend, we would have dinner, play a little, laugh and joke, and it was all fun. And it continued to be fun for a while and then the amount of money we put in went up, and then it just got out of hand.

ZHOROV: Anna declined to share the details of her story except to say that it got REAL BAD. We met at a  Gamblers Anonymous meeting in a church located just a couple minutes’ drive from the big casino.

Only two of the five regulars attended that particular meeting, one of whom was the Organizer, who also didn’t want her name used. She started the meetings when a friend sought help and found no resources in the community. She got in touch with the International Gamblers Anonymous office, found a space for the meetings, and bought materials out of pocket. 

ORGANIZER: Gambling isn’t spoke of. Nobody talks about it even with all the casinos we have in Fremont County, nobody talks about gambling and people losing their houses, losing everything they own. It happens all the time.  

ZHOROV: The organizer and Anna are both clear that it’s not the casinos’ fault.

But they say that gambling addiction is still very much a problem. There are no statistics about whether the number of gambling addicts is increasing.

Here’s Fremont County Prosecuting Attorney, Brian Varn:

BRIAN VARN: I don’t know that I can say there’s been an increase for certain. I know that in the last 4 years we’ve had somewhere around 8 cases in which the defendants themselves told us that the reason they had been involved in embezzlement and theft from their employers was because of their gambling.

ZHOROV: He suspects other cases were also linked to gambling, but can’t be sure. Varn says those numbers aren’t exactly an epidemic, and the Gamblers Anonymous meetings aren’t overflowing either.

But the National Council of Problem Gambling estimates that there are 8,000 problem gamblers and 4,000 pathological gamblers in Wyoming. Executive Director of the Council, Keith Whyte, says nobody actually counts, so the numbers could be higher. In the past six months, the Council’s hotline received an average of 50 calls a month from Wyoming.

Whyte says part of the problem is that gambling is legal, and gambling addiction isn’t often seen as an illness.

KEITH WHYTE: Until recently it hasn’t been seen as a public health problem. The state has been very slow to address and respond to it just like other diseases like diabetes or drug abuse and depression. Although the medical community sees them as all very similarly related.

ZHOROV: The Fremont County Counseling Service is one entity that is taking the issue seriously, despite the lack of data. They’re starting a gambling awareness group that will teach classes about signs and symptoms of gambling addiction, what to look out for and how to engage someone who may be a problem gambler. So far, demand for the class has been low.

For now, Director of Fremont Counseling Service, Gerry McAdams, says the class is still worth holding.

GERRY McADAMS: Need and demand are two different things. I’m not opposed to doing things when I know there’s a need, then at some point and time we have to catch up the need and the demand together where we can run a viable program.

ZHOROV: The Wind River Casino recognizes there is a problem, too. The Casino’s Andrea Clifford says they’ve seen it affect their employees. The casino has brought in specialists to train all staff on problem gambling awareness and train local counselors to specialize in gambling addiction. They also provide self-exclusion, where people self-identify themselves and are asked to leave the casino if found there, but the Organizer and Anna both said it doesn’t work. Finally, the casino used to help out with GA meetings in the past. 

Currently, however, Clifford says casino staff is stretched thin and it doesn’t help that there aren’t other resources in the area…

ANDREA CLIFFORD: It was kind of hard for us because when we called the hotline for problem gambling they didn’t even realize that WY had casinos here. And we were kind of like yeah, we’re here, we’ve been here, and we need some services and some help. 

ZHOROV: Current GA meetings convene at the Church of Christ in Riverton, every Monday at 6pm.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Irina Zhorov. 

To listen to the entire November 30, 2012 Wyoming Open Spaces program, please click here.