Casino spinoff: trouble in Atlantic City

Can something be done to offset somewhat the tremendous personal and family problems casino gambling has swept into Atlantic City? Yes, says a growing number of social service and church-related organizations trying to help compulsive gamblers, drug addicts, the destitute, and others. But "it's like people trying to help each other in a hurricane," says the Rev. Dudley Sarfaty, a Presbyterian minister who is general secretary of the New Jersey Council of Churches.

Law-enforcement and social-service agency officials here point out that since casino gambling arrived in May 1978, the number of people who have become problem gamlers or drug users, or who have had family problems has mushroomed:

* Jeffrey Blitz, assistant Atlantic County prosecutor, says ellicit drug use here, especially of cocaine, has increased dramatically in the last six months.

* Arnold Wexler, vice-president of the National Council on Compulsive Gambling, a group dedicated to helping addicted gamblers, says problem gambling now is a major social problem in Atlantic City. Such findings in part confirm a federal study by the US Gambling Commission that found where there is more gambling in any form, there are more problem gamblers.

* Family-oriented social-service agencies, such as Jewish Family Services Inc., report a big case load increase since the casino gambling arrived here. Some of the spokesmen attribute the increase directly to problems caused by family members who gamble.

Ironically, many of the people who are having some of the biggest family and emotional problems are employees of the three operating casinos who earn excellent wages compared with other Atlantic City workers.

"One of the problems the casino workers have is not being able to handle their money correctly," explains John Halpin, who runs a two-year-old mental health clinic at the Atlantic City Medical Center here. "We began in July of 1978 thinking we were going to deal with 750 'walk ins' the first year. We got 3,000 people. And the percentage of casino-related problems is pretty dramatic. These problems basically center around the family situation which has changed dramatically. Many families are without a parent for 16 hours a day while the parent is at work."

For example, one top casino executive, a problem gambler even before he was hired, is finding himself in one tight situation after another. He gambles most of his income away. He often things about leaving, and recently was offered a job in another industry. He turned it down because he would have been paid less.

Eventually this man and many others like him may attend the new weekly meetings of the Gamblers Anonymous (GA) chapter here, held just a block from the Boardwalk in a Presbyterian church. GA is a nationwide non-profit organization dedicated to helping compulsive gamblers "kick the habit" -- a habit which many of them say wrecked their family lives and careers before they licked it.

But Mike A., a reformed gambler and Atlantic City GA member, says that the group's efforts to help addicted gamblers are being thwarted because the casinos won't give the group any publicity. "They don't believe compulsive gambling is a problem. Our work depends on the publicity," he says.

In Las Vegas, casino operators do refer problem gamblers to GAM and Mr. A. and others in Ga say it is probably only a matter of time before that happens here.

While every week seems to bring someone new to the GA meeting, the mental health clinic, Jewish Family Services Inc., and other social-service organizations here, one key aid group has had to shut down at a time when its usefulness was rising sharply.

"The Travelers' Aid Society has gone out of business with the full knowledge of the casino industry," the Rev. Mr. Sarfaty laments. The industry was unresponsive to requests for contributions to the society, he says. This was despite many gamblers at the casinos who had "lost their shirts" and received a lot of help from the society. The Salvation Army now is trying to take on care of the financially stranded.

Some churches here are noting an increase in both membership and attendance, Mr. Sarfaty says, and some of the new faces are csino employees.

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