Juvenile Fire Setter Intervention Program
Arson is a serious crime. It injures and kills people, and it destroys properties. Of all the FBI indexed crimes, arson has one of the highest rates of juvenile involvement. Of those arrested, more than 50 percent are age 17 and under. More than 500 juveniles are arrested for arson annually in Texas, and they are responsible for more than $6 million in property loss. A fire is reported every 3 ½ hours in Texas as a result of children playing with fire, matches, or other fire starter tools. Annually, these child-set fires result in more than 138 injuries and 9 deaths.
The majority of child-set fires are started out of curiosity, not malice. Fire interest in children is almost universal and children of all ages are involved in fire-setting behavior. Although curiosity about fire is natural, setting fires is not! Many young children are fascinated by matches and lighters and often imitate adults who light cigarettes, candles or fireplaces. Unfortunately, they are not aware of the extreme and destructive consequences which can result from playing with fire.
Youth involved in firesetting fall into four categories:
Troubled or Crisis Firesettermost often ranges in age from 6 to 12, grade school through teenage years. Although the firesetting of some of these children is motivated by curiosity or experimentation, a greater proportion of their firesetting represents underlying psychosocial conflicts. They will continue to set fires until their issues are addressed and their needs are met. Fires are set as a way to act out in response to their anger, frustration, and feelings of being powerless. They exhibit sadness and confusion related to stress or major changes in their lives.
Delinquent Firesettersare usually youths in their teens, generally adolescents between the ages of 10 and 18, with a history of starting fires - though the history and firestarting behavior may be previously undetected. Usually strongly influenced by their peers, these youths use fire to cause malicious mischief or rebel against authority. They set fires as acts of vandalism or for creating excitement and destroying property. Abandoned buildings, open fields, and schools are common targets. Most of these firesetters have a history of antisocial behavior, lying, stealing, truancy, and drug abuse.
The final group is categorized as Severely Disturbed or Psychopathological Firesetters. It consists of youths who often have a long history of behavioral problems and show symptoms which are characteristic of two major personality types, - “Impulsive Neurotic” and “Borderline Psychotic”. Often, these youths reside in state mental or correctional institutions. They may have a chronic history of academic or psychic trauma, and the fires may be of a ritualistic and repetitive nature.
Children who set fires may exhibit one or more of these characteristics:
- Have little fire knowledge
- Are curious
- Are impulsive
- Are nonverbal/performance learners
- Are mischievous and oppositional
- Have learning disabilities
- Have been physically or sexually abused
- Are anxious and traumatized
- Are socially awkward and isolated
- Are sad and depressed
- Find it hard to communicate with words
- Are angry and hostile
- Feel rejected and abandoned
- Are thrill seeking
- Are violent and aggressive
- Have a serious mental illness
- Have poor peer relationships and experience social isolation; are bullied
- Blame others and/or unwilling to accept responsibility for one’s own actions
- Are bedwetters
What can parents do? Families and even law enforcement personnel are often reluctant to take action on what they think, and hope, is a one-time occurrence. Law enforcement personnel sometime fail to report incidents as crime, and so, the juvenile avoids intervention and/or prosecution. Sometimes families simply ignore the seriousness of the behavior.
However, ALL children who have engaged in fireplay or firesetting behavior need intervention. Even very young children who are just curious need to be educated on the dangers of fireplay so that they do not continue the behavior and possibly follow the pattern to become arsonists.
Some specific things parents can do:
Parental Awareness Take notice of your children. If they are using or carrying ignition material (matches, lighters) for no particular reason, talk with them and listen to them. Be aware of their moods, feelings, and relationships, both within and outside the home. Never leave young children unattended, even for short periods of time. Hire only experienced, trained babysitters.
Straight Talk Talk to your children about the realities of the law. A fire that is set can lead to the felony charge of Arson. This is a serious crime. Fire can destroy property, injure others, or take lives.
Set a good example. Most kids learn how to use fire by watching the adults around them - most often their parents. If the behavior of adults does not show respect for fire, the behavior of children most certainly won’t. Most kids learn how to relate to others and handle stress from their parents. How you live your life impacts greatly on how your children live their lives.
Access Keep matches and lighters in a safe place, high and out of reach of young children. Lock those items up if necessary.
Don’t ignore the obvious. When kids use fire in ways that are harmful or dangerous, problems will occur. Whether through education or an in-depth mental health evaluation, seek appropriate help before problems occur. Punishment, discipline, and “scare tactics” do not work. You will need the help, support, and guidance of a professional. Firesetting behavior will not stop without intervention. Be emphatic: Tell the child “No! You are not to play with matches and lighters!”
Your local fire department is often the best point of first contact when you need help with a child who is misusing fire. The fire service is often the first to identify youths who have set fires, and fire service personnel are experts in fire safety. That makes the fire service the logical place for an intervention program. Intervention programs within the fire service evaluate juveniles and their families to identify needs and determine risks for future firesetting. They can provide appropriate fire safety education and can assist juveniles and their families in meeting other needs, such as counseling and social services, by referring them to other resources within the community.
Don’t hesitate to ask for help! Being a parent is a physically and emotionally demanding job. Among other difficult decisions, parents find themselves in a position of deciding whether their child’s fireplay or firesetting necessitates intervention. When making a decision regarding professional help for fireplay or firesetting behavior, always err on the side of safety. If there is not a major concern about your child’s fireplay, you and your child will have that reassurance, and you will have received important fire prevention information useful to all families. If your child does have a more serious firesetting problem, your decision to get help could be a life-saving one.
Please contact the Weatherford Fire Marshal's Office, at 817-598-4280 if you need more information or know a child or family who may need assistance.