GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Lisa Vig has heard it all.
The program director for Gambler’s Choice, a gambling counseling program run by Lutheran Social Services in Grand Forks, Vig has a long list of stories collected from her own work and the work of her colleagues. Problem gamblers can embezzle, pawn their personal items, take out payday loans and far more.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as stealing money from a savings account that their spouse isn’t aware of,” she said. “It’s missing payments on a car or insurance, or letting things lapse, because they’re behind on bills and they want to keep the activity hidden.”
It’s the source of profound shame and embarrassment for many problem gamblers, who Vig said are often well aware of how harmful their actions can be. The issue, she said, is that gamblers are in the grip of a compulsion stronger than their shame.
“A misunderstanding is that there’s a lot of chemical changes that are happening in the brain of a problem gambler when they are participating in that activity. …” Vig said. “They’re participating in mood-altering behavior. That’s why you leave your kids in the car, that’s why you steal someone’s necklace. That why you dip into your kid’s savings.”
Comprehensive data on gambling is tough to find, though. Lacresha Graham, a behavioral health administrator with the North Dakota Department of Human Services, said the most recent set of statewide data is more than a decade old.
“We don’t really have an understanding of what the scope of the problem is in North Dakota right now,” said Graham said
Graham said the state’s Problem Gambling Advisory Council — a body that advises the department on gambling prevention and public awareness — has asked the Department of Human Services to contract with the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling to conduct a statewide survey of the issue.
Graham said because negotiations with the Massachusetts group are ongoing, it’s tough to say when the study will start or exactly how it will be conducted. Studies done by the group in the past have been phone surveys that help show the prevalence of gambling across age, ethnicity, gender, location and other qualities across the state.
“Their methodology is something that we’re still negotiating in conversations right now,” she said. “I think they’re looking at specific demographics.”
Graham added the purpose of the study isn’t to investigate any particular policy. It’s more like the U.S. Census — it simply establishes baseline data for future work. She did note that once the study is underway, it will take about 16 weeks to complete.
Despite the gap in comprehensive data, available statistics help cobble together a portrait of gambling in the state. According to a study from Wallethub.com, North Dakota has the fourth-most casinos per capita in the country and the 12th-most gaming machines per capita to boot.
The North Dakota Attorney General’s office, which tracks gambling data in the state, indicates total proceeds from charitable gambling tracked by its office — not including lottery or Native American gaming proceeds — came to about $71 million in the last quarter of 2015, prior to prize payouts.
The forthcoming study is important, Vig said, because more information could be used to help treat gambling issues around the state.
“I think the study will tell us the areas of the state where there might be more gambling-related problems,” she said,”and I think it helps us better tailor services, find professionals and tailor resources in those portions of the state.”
It’s even more relevant, given the size of Vig’s staff. Counselors in the state are limited; to her knowledge, she said, her staff of four — including herself — are the only certified gambling counselors in the state.
“You can only spread yourself so thin and try and cover a significant area,” she said. “We certainly do need additional staff. There are so many areas of the state that are underserved. Somebody from Williston is calling, and how conducive is it to tell them that we won’t have someone in Williston for another seven days?”
That availability, in turn, is closely tied to the state’s budget woes. Vig said her program has recently suffered cuts related to a contract with the Department of Human Services. The news that Gov. Jack Dalrymple is requesting further cuts, she said, doesn’t bode well.
“If there are further cuts (in our DHS contract) to come, certainly it does cut into other opportunities to serve individuals in North Dakota,” she said.
Gambling in North Dakota
According to a 2012 U.S. Census Bureau study, about 1.5 percent of North Dakotans age 18 and older, or an estimated 8,175 residents, are believed to manifest a gambling disorder. North Dakota ranked high in the nation in multiple categories related to gambling. Here are some of those rankings.
— Fourth for number of casinos per capita
— 12th for number of gaming machines per capita
— First for legality of daily fantasy sports
— First for National Council on Problem Gambling Affiliation
— Fifth for legality of sports gambling
— Fewest gambling-related arrests per capita in the county (tied for 40th with Alabama, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont and Washington)