May 15, 2008 — -- While her two children were allegedly left alone in the car, police say Jennifer Lee was busy playing the slots.
Lee and Fouchoy Saephan are both facing felony charges of willful cruelty to children, after allegedly leaving their children in a car for about 45 minutes while they were inside a California casino -- where Lee allegedly spent part of the time gambling.
When they were discovered by Madera County sheriff's deputies, the children -- a 2-year-old and a 10-month-old -- "were crying, screaming, sweating profusely and their skin had turned reddish in color," sheriff's department spokeswoman Erica Stuart said.
Though there are no reliable statistics on how often gambling leads to the abuse or neglect of children, this is one of several recent cases of parents allegedly leaving their children unattended while they gambled.
A couple in New York was arrested earlier this month for allegedly leaving a 2-month-old in the car for 20 minutes while they watched the Kentucky Derby.
Police in major gambling cities like Las Vegas said they do not consider leaving children locked in cars at casinos to be a major problem -- in part due to recent zero-tolerance policies -- but Kids and Cars, an advocacy group, found at least 32 such cases between 1994 and 2003.
The total number is probably much higher. The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky., based on an examination of Indiana Gaming Commission records, found 37 instances of children being left unattended while their caretakers were gambling in 1999 and 2000 alone.
The majority of injuries and deaths involving unattended children in and around cars happen quickly, with the exception of heat-related cases, said Jannett Fennell of Kids and Cars. Last year, 232 children died in nontraffic cases in and near vehicles.
Those deaths can lead to significant jail time for caretakers. Nanny Terri Lynn Revere was sentenced to 40 years in a Louisiana prison for leaving a child in a locked van while she played poker. Antonio Balta was given a 20-year prison sentence for leaving his 9-month-old daughter in the car while he went to the track.
Therapists and psychiatrists speculated that many gamblers who leave their children alone in the car probably have gambling addiction problems.
"They will go to any length, even if it means leaving their kids in the car, to be able to gamble," said Coleen Moore, a counselor at the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery.
"What we see is that families have suffered financially, spiritually and emotionally as a result of a loved one engaging in gambling," she said.
In the case of Saephan and Lee, police say Lee told them she was looking for a relative who worked in the casino, but "then she sat down at a slot machine and started gambling," Stuart said.
Lee and Saephan could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Lee was not arrested.
The children were taken into state custody.
Richard Rosenthal, chairman of psychiatry at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York, said there was little difference between gambling addictions and drug or alcohol addictions.
"It's compulsive behavior that they've lost control over," he said.
The 1999 National Gambling Impact Study Commission Report found that compulsive gamblers had higher rates of child abuse and neglect.
"The impact on [the] lives of those poor souls and their families is stunning," said Timothy Kelley, the commission's director.
"It's not that they're bad people. But they're engaged in an activity that is so powerful that they literally escaped from their own life. They don't think about their own life. They literally forgot that their child is out in the car dying," he said.