Juvenile firesetting is best defined as any unsanctioned
use of or involvement with ignition materials the intent of which is to
produce a flame or fire.
The problem of juvenile firesetting is significantly
more widespread than our current statistical analyses show. According
to the USFA, 25% to 40% of incendiary structure fires can be attributed
to children playing with matches or lighters. However this takes into
account only those structure fires for which there is a public safety
response. In several published studies it was shown that child firesetters
set, on the average, 5 fires that are extinguished and not reported to
the authorities prior to the incident that gains them the attention of
outside officials. Another indication of the true scope of the problem
is that it more often involves non-structural fires (e.g.: dumpsters,
brush ad other scenarios) which are not factored into the arson statistics.
The safest approach for an arson investigator to take, particularly when
a fire involves a home where children reside, is to first rule out a child
or adolescent as a possible source of ignition.
Locations that are particularly indicative of child-set
- to, under and around beds
- to, under and behind couches or chairs
- in closets
- in basements or attics, on porches or areas the child
perceives of as "hidden"
- in bathrooms, over the sink
- in a living room, over an ashtray
Clearly, children can and do sets fires anywhere, but
the above locations are the most frequent scenarios.
Materials that are particularly indicative of child-set
- use of matches and lighters as ignition devices
- ordinary combustibles such as paper and clothing that
is readily available and
- indicates a spontaneous, impulsive fire
- toys, school papers, particular possessions of adults
for which a child went to some
- degree of difficulty to attain and/or ignite
Firesetting Scenarios: Impulsive vs Premeditated
Impulsive fires are the work of impulsive children, and
these young people can be struggling with impulse control problems, so
it would not be surprising or unusual to come across a child with Attention
Deficit Disorder (with or without Hyperactivity), or Oppositional Defiant
Disorder, or Conduct Disorder. All of these are diagnostic terms that
relate to problems controlling impulses, and they underscore that the
child is significantly more impulsive than a "normal" child.
For this kind of child, easy access to ignition devices and a moment of
unsupervised, unstructured time is all that's needed for a fire to result.
In general, as a rule of thumb, spontaneous, impulsive fires are the work
of children under the age of 8. The older the child, the less likely this
scenario can be accepted without suspicion on the part of the investigator.
Fires with more specificity are the work of children
in trouble. Children, even adolescents, are very concrete. If they burn
one paper among a series, one photo from an album, one toy among all others,
there is something about that one item and it is probably the key to solving
the motive for the fire. Children in crisis typically admit their actions
without remorse and seem unable to explain them. This is not subterfuge,
it is the mark of a child in trouble.
Developmental Limits on The Thinking and Memory of
For reasons of development, language acquisition and
self-preservation, children make lousy witnesses. Children under 8 cannot
reliably sequences events or project the consequences of their actions.
Their brains are not developed enough to measure and hold the concept
Children of all ages remember visual images with greater
clarity and prominence that other sense memories, and they may even give
them more weight in retrospect than they had at the time of the incident
in question. There is less of a barrier between fantasy and reality for
children, and this makes them better at blocking real events from memory
and at imagining things that never actually happened. All of this is why
children need adults around them to sort the world out for them. It's
also why the work of fire investigators is so critical in the field of
juvenile firesetter intervention.
Fundamental to the assessment and treatment of children
firesetters is a complete understanding of what they did and how much
trouble they had to go through in order to do it. For this, we have to
rely on an investigation that tells us not only that the fire started
on a pile of clothes, but whose clothes and whether or not they belonged
there in the first place; or, that tells us not only that the child used
a lighter, but whose lighter, how he got it, how long he had it before
he used it and what he did with it after the fire.
Interviewing Young Children
Investigators should get training in child development
before interviewing a child, but there are some general guidelines that
can help in most situations. In general, avoid "why" questions
that require insightful analysis of motives. Instead, think of the Dragnet
television show and "stick to the facts..." the concrete what,
where, when and how. Whenever possible, ask the child to draw or show
you what he did. This allows the child to rely on his strong visual skills
and avoid the language skills that are the weakest link in the cognitive
chain. Another idea is to use concrete reference tools for the child ("was
it bigger than this notebook here?" or "what was on television
when you decided to make the fire?"). This strategy can help you
avoid leading questions while at the same time giving the child guidance
in understanding what it is that you are asking about.
Understanding the Firesetting Dynamic
Investigators should avoid assigning motives or classifying
the behavior too quickly. Recent studies from University of Maine, Boston
Children's Hospital and University of Pittsburgh have all shown that over
70% of the children fire investigators labeled "curious" had
diagnosable mental disorders. These studies prove that motive and risk
for recidivism do not necessarily correlate. These and similar studies
also demonstrated that the tired old triad of symptoms: firesetting, enuresis
and cruelty to animals are not common occurrences, even among the category
of children considered to be "pathological." If by chance an
investigator comes across a child who exhibits all three behaviors, the
child protection agency in that jurisdiction should be immediately contacted,
since the three are all indications of severe sexual abuse.
Far more common characteristics for firesetters across
all motivational categories are the following traits:
issues of power and control (diagnosed by ADHD, ODD or
even a parent complaining of having to struggle for power with the child)
language deficits or limits (reliance of acting out feelings
and ideas as opposed to talking about them; better at math and science
persistent interest in fire (as opposed to momentary
bouts of curiosity, and continuing despite punishment and sanction)
a perception of themselves as less vulnerable to injury
than peers and contemporaries ("I can control it," and "I
never get hurt")
Implications for Connecting Investigation to Intervention
Firesetting behavior is complex and dynamic, but it requires
two distinct sets of skills and bodies of information to fully understand
and intervene with it. The first set of skills belong to fire investigators
who can reconstruct what the child actually did. The second set of skills
belong to child development specialists who can explain why and prescribe
the appropriate course of action to reduce the likelihood of recidivism.
This has to be the primary goal of intervention, since firesetting behavior
without treatment has an 81% probability of recidivism. With appropriate
treatment, there is only a 10% probability of recidivism. The key to appropriate
treatment is in the work of the fire investigator, since the best clinicians
in the world cannot operate without at least come incontrovertible facts
from which to gauge the child's honesty, awareness, intent and mental
For Further Study
The articles on the following pages represent the best
of the work in their field to date. The resource director that follows
contains a listing of credible firesetter programs and specialists in
the United States.
Bibliography: Recommended Readings
Adler, R., Nunn, R., Northam, E., Lebnan, V., and Ross,
R (1994). Secondary Prevention of Childhood Firesetting. Journal of the
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 33 (8): 1194-1202.
Bumpass, E.R., Fagelman, F.D., and Brix, R.J. (1983).
Intervention with children who set fires. American Journal of Psychotherapy.
37 (3): 328-345.
Cole, R., Grolnick, W., and Schwartzman, P. 1993. "Firesetting."
Handbook of Prescriptive Treatments for Children and Adolescents. Ammerman,
Last & Hersen. Allyn & Bacon Publishing Company.
DeSalvatore, G., and Hornstein, R., 1991. Juvenile Firesetting:
Assessment and Treatment in Psychiatric Hospitalization and Residential
Placement. Child & Youth Care Forum, 20 (2): 103-113.
Fineman, K., (1995) A Model for the qualitative analysis
of child and adult fire deviant behavior. Amer J of Forensic Psych. 13(1).
Gaynor, J., an Hatcher, C. (1987) The Psychology of Child
Firesetting: Detection and Intervention. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Grolnick, W.S., Cole R.E., Laurentis, L., and Schwartzmn,
P., (1990).Playing with Fire: A Developmental Assessment of Children's
Fire Understanding and Experience. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology.
Heath, G.A., Hardesty, V.A., et al, (1985) Diagnosis
and Childhood Firesetting. Journal of Clinical Psychology. 41 (4) 571-575.
Kolko, D.J., and Kazdin, A.E., (1994) Children's Descriptions
of Their Firesetting Incidents: Characters and Relationship to Recidivism.
Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 33:1,
Kolko, D.J., and Kazdin, A.E., (1992). The Emergence
and Recurrence of Child Firesetting: A One-Year Prospective Study.Journal
of Abnormal Child Psychology. 20 (1) 17-37.
Kolko, D.J., and Kazdin, A.E., (1989) Assessment of dimensions
of childhood firesetting among patients and nonpatients: The Firesetting
Risk Interview. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 17: 157-176.
Sakheim, G.A., Osborn, E., and Abrams, D. (1991). Toward
a Clearer Differentiation of High-Risk from Low-Risk Firesetters. Child
Welfare League of America. 70 (4): 489-503.
National Program Resources:
Beverly Burns, President
Arizona Fire and Burn Educator's Association
P O Box 1117
Tempe, AZ 85280-1117
Judy Okulitch, JFS Coordinator
Oregon State Fire Marshal's Office
4760 Portland Road NE
Salem, OR 97305-1760
Martin King, JFS Coordinator
Wisconsin IAAI/Juvenile Firesetter Program Network
2040 South 67th Place
West Allis, WI 53219
Juvenile Firesetter Program
Rockville Fire Department
101 Monroe Street
Rockville, MD 20850
National Fire Service Support Systems
20 North Main Street
Pittsford, NY 14534
Juvenile Firesetter Program
St Petersburg Fire Department
400 9th Street South
St Petersburg, FL 33701
Juvenile Firesetter Program
Portland Fire Department
380 Congress Street
Portland, ME 04101
Kenneth Fineman, PhD
Child and Family Center
17822 Beach Blvd #437
Huntington Beach CA 92647
MA. Coalition for Juvenile Firesetter Programs
P O Box 416
Westport Pt MA 02791
Commission on Fire Prevention & Control
P O Box 3383
Windsor Locks, CT 06096-3383
Miller Life Safety Center
10795 South Pine Drive
Parker, CO 80134
Spring Lake Park Fire Dept
1710 Highway 10
Spring Lake Park, MN 555432
Manchester Fire Dept
50 Bridge Street
Manchester NH 03101
Texas State Commission on Fire Protection
12675 Research Blvd
Austin TX 78759
Pierce County Juvenile Firesetter Program
100 South 114th Street
Tacoma, WA 98444
Bingham Child Guidance Center
200 East Chestnut Street
Louisville KY 40202
Karen Johnston, LCSW
Peace Health Medical Group
175 West B Street Building D
Sprignfield, OR 97477
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