As opportunities to wager increase, Valerie Lorenz aids people who succumb


August 18, 1991|By Henry Scarupa and Randi Henderson

Watching Marylanders fall over themselves recentlyfor a 1 in 7 million chance at winning a fortune in the state lottery, Valerie C. Lorenz felt that she was witnessing a tragedy in the making.

"What I kept thinking was, if the players and the state government only knew the other side of that glitzy coin," said Dr. Lorenz, 54, executive director of the National Center for Pathological Gambling, a residential treatment program in Baltimore for compulsive gamblers that she describes as unique in the country.

"I don't look at big jackpots with joy," she said. "With huge jackpots I think, look how many new gamblers will be sucked in and become compulsive. It's so very sad. Look at how many losers there had to be to get one winner. We get the tragedy and the devastation in our offices, the people who are losing their homes, the people who are contemplating suicide."

And lottery gamblers represent only a small part of what Dr. Lorenz sees as the gambling problem in Maryland.

"We have Las Vegas right here in Baltimore," she explained. "We have casino gamblers, we have racetrack gamblers, slot machine addicts, lottery addicts, bingo addicts and poker machine addicts. Poker machines are especially addictive and they're all over the state, in bars, restaurants and fraternal organizations. You see people spending their whole paycheck in a couple of hours."

The problem here was serious enough, Dr. Lorenz felt, that in May she opened her center in a pair of rehabilitated row houses on East Baltimore Street. The facility -- named Harbour Center, to suggest a safe haven -- has space for eight to 10 clients. It is the outgrowth of an outpatient treatment program that began in 1978 and whose clients have included musicians, athletes and professionals from across the country as well as people in more ordinary circumstances.

Perhaps the most prominent local figure in treatment was former Washington County Judge Paul Ottinger, who spent four years in prison for stealing thousands of dollars from his clients and for forging checks. It was Mr. Ottinger, in fact, who suggested the name for the facility.

Gambling meccas such as Las Vegas, Nev., or Atlantic City, N.J., might seem more logical places in which to establish a treatment center. But Dr. Lorenz knows from her own research how close to home the problem is.

She recently served as co-chairperson, with Dr. Robert Politzer, of the Task Force on Gambling Addiction, which the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene convened to examine the problem in Maryland. The two-year study, released earlier this year, estimates that Maryland has at least 50,000 compulsive gamblers who cost the state more than $4 billion a year in lost wages, embezzled funds, bankrupt businesses, criminal prosecution and detention, broken homes and treatment addicts and their families. And the problem is growing.

"I think it comes from the whole change in society's attitude toward gambling," Dr. Lorenz said. "Gambling at casinos is now referred to as gaming. That's simply cleaning up the words. It's promoted as a recreational activity and entertainment. Twenty or 30 years ago it was associated with organized crime.

"State lotteries certainly have contributed toward this attitude with their advertising. All of a sudden gambling is not illegal, not immoral, not unethical but an honorable activity. The state promotes it. The result is a total gambling climate."

Dr. Lorenz, a mental health counselor who wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on the subject of gambling pathology, became interested in the subject, she said, "in the best way possible, and the worst. I was married to a compulsive gambler."

Now divorced and the mother of three grown children, she became fascinated with compulsive gambling as she realized that her husband wasn't fully aware of his own addiction. A native of Germany who once intended to pursue a career as a museum curator, she became more and more involved in gambling research and moved to Maryland from Florida eight years ago because, she said, "Maryland has always been a center of compulsive gambling research."

In her research Dr. Lorenz has found that lawyers, bank vice lTC presidents and CPAs are especially prone to gambling addiction. Pressure on the job coupled with easy access to money pushes certain people over the brink.

"Take bank VPs," she said. "They're intelligent, hard-working individuals, who are fast-tracked through the bank, getting responsible jobs. As the pressure mounts and the personal problems mount, they turn to gambling as an escape."

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