Television schedules are filled with Christmas movies this time of year, from the classics to the new, made-for-television specials, all with the same theme: hope despite hardship, true meaning in love and family, and, however conventional, "happily ever after." Beyond the television screen, holiday messages are everywhere, in the decorations of stores and offices and schools, in the music playing in every shopping center, in the plans and activities of the whole month of December. Hope, family, feasting, togetherness, gifts and more gifts...
While most children in America are happily dreaming about the toys they want or the family vacation they'll take, the children of an addicted gambler hope for things much more basic. A Christmas tree is not an option when you face the threat of eviction. A big family dinner is impossible when there is no money for food because someone in the family gambled it away. The children of gambling addicts hope for adequate food, clothing, heat, light, a safe and unthreatened home, Mom and Dad to stop fighting. They wish for reprieve from life with an addicted gambler.
These examples may seem like the opening scenes in a tear-jerking Hallmark Christmas special, but they are very real and are happening daily in thousands of homes this holiday season. For these kids, however, it isn't hope despite hardship; it is only a matter of hardship, and it is a continuing hardship over which they have no control. Gambling addiction is as real and powerful and devastating as any other addiction, sometimes moreso because it is "the 'hidden illness,' ...there are no visible physical symptoms" (1). Gambling addiction can continue, unchecked, for months and years, all the while causing extreme uncertainty, devastation of family life, neglect and even abuse in the lives of the children involved.
The Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery states that children may be "physically and/or emotionally abandoned by their parents... left by themselves at the outer rim of casinos while their parents gamble... children may also spend several hours each week with babysitters while their parents gamble... All of these scenarios may lead a child to feel physically and emotionally abandoned." Abandonment is only the beginning of what these children may suffer: "the dysfunction that pathological gambling creates in a home often includes spouse and child abuse. Children are abused verbally, mentally and physically by the gambler, and often even more so by the co-dependent spouse. This devastating abuse frequently goes unnoticed or is denied by others as the child suffers in silence" (2).
Obviously, gambling addicts require money, lots of it, to fuel their habit. Leroy Salazar, executive director of Espanola public housing, discusses the effect of gambling on entire families in a 2005 article from the Albuquerque Journal. Salazar notes that "It's sad when I have to go and evict a family because... the single parent who lives in the home has spent all the family income at the casino and they don't have any food and they can't pay their utilities, much less their rent" (3). There are numerous stories of parents using not only the entire paycheck for gambling, but accumulating enormous credit card debt, stealing their children's money, pawning household items, and failing to provide for the most basic needs of their children.
The message the children get from this kind of lifestyle is simple: gambling is more important to me than you are. What are children supposed to think when they look around and see families participating in holiday activities together, children receiving attention and presents, an abundance of togetherness and treats and special times that never reaches them? The mental and emotional anguish created in these children is perhaps the greatest crime of all.
In a country where prosperity is an attainable reality for everyone, it is a travesty that thousands of children will lack not just the holiday trimmings but the basics of security and provision. If we truly wish to help the poor, let us start with our own neighbors and refuse to allow the glittering promises of casinos to lure in more parents, destroy more families, and steal the simple pleasures of the Christmas season from more children.
1. John Dorsey and Jaelline Jaffe, Ph.D., contributed to this article. "Gambling Addiction: Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment." Last modified on: 1/28/07. HelpGuide.org: A Trusted Non-Profit Resource. Accessed 5 December 2007. <http://www.helpguide.org/mental/gambling_addiction.htm>
2. Zehr, Rick. "Gambling Addiction Questions and Answers." 2005. Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery. Accessed 5 December 2007.
3. "Dark Side of Gambling." From The Albuquerque Journal, 7 January 2005. Quoted on Pact Oregon website. Accessed 5 December 2007. <http://pactoregon.org/facts-childeffects.html>