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Introduction to Juvenile Firesetting

By Special Agent Jessica F. Gotthold, CFI
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms

According to statistics, juveniles start more than 50% of all fires. These statistics are often underestimated due to numerous unreported fires. A small fire in a closet discovered by a parent usually ends in a punishment for the child and a possible call to the insurance company for the damage to affected items.

Juvenile firesetting is an enormous yet preventable problem, which affects every demographic area of our nation. It has no socioeconomic, racial or ethnic barriers. The motives vary with the age of the fire setter, and with the home/school environment. Firesetting is normally a form of reaching out by the child as a result of an underlying issue. It is often a cry for help. Due to the multi-layered nature of this issue, one must focus on the elemental problem(s) as well as the resulting firesetting.

The area of juvenile firesetting creates a bridge between accidental and arson incidents. It is here that the term incendiary becomes a more complex issue. One must ask the following questions:

  • What is the perception of the offender?
  • What is the history of the offender?

Focusing on the physical aspects of the juvenile-set fire may lead to some patterns, which may be helpful to the fire origin and cause investigator.

  • Juvenile fires are normally unplanned events.
  • They may occur subsequent to an associated negative incident.
  • They are initiated most often by available combustible materials.
  • The juvenile will often be unsupervised at the time of the event.
  • The fire will often take place in a bedroom, closet or area where the child will not be observed.

It is extremely important to realize that the investigation of a small fire in a closet is as important as a whole structure fire. Every attempt should be made to identify the juvenile offender and recommend the appropriate penalty, whether it is a prevention program or juvenile detention. If these steps are not carried out, then the seemingly small and insignificant incident will eventually progress to fires of much greater magnitude, where lives and property may be lost.

The investigator must inform the family or guardian of the juvenile offender of their vital role in the prevention process. This is crucial in paving the way for the juvenile to work out his/her problems in a constructive manner. One of the most difficult aspects involved in investigating juvenile-set fires is gaining the trust of the child, in the presence of a parent or guardian, enough to be able to tell the investigator that he/she set the fire and why.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

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