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CASE STUDY: A juvenile firesetter faces justice, treatment

February 7, 2008
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a nine-part series of stories highlighting the issues surrounding “Children at Risk” in Clinton County. The case studies are drawn from actual case files of Clinton County Children and Youth and Juvenile Probation. The names of the children and caseworkers have been changed to protect the innocent.

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LOCK HAVEN — According to national statistics, about one in every four fires is intentionally set — and almost half of those fires are set by youth under the age of 18.

One of those statistics was borne out by a juvenile in Clinton County who came to the attention of Gina Foresman.

Foresman, who supervises the Clinton County Juvenile Probation Department, said there was nothing particularly unusual about “Chuck” when he came to her office and her attention, for setting a vehicle on fire.

The youngster came from a low-income, single-parent family, not unusual circumstances for this region.

He was detained on charges of arson and was immediately committed to the Central Counties Youth Detention Center pending a court hearing, social history and psychological evaluation.

When it comes to arson, local authorities take matters seriously.

Most children can have a fascination with flames and fire, Foresman said, but for a small minority of youngsters, the interest is deeper. And the danger — to themselves, to their families and to society — is immediate and potentially deadly.

Arson is a serious crime.

It injures and kills people, destroys properties, and destabilizes neighborhoods.

Juveniles are big contributors to arson statistics, but young arsonists can also be victims, as child welfare investigations prove time and again. In this case, the suspect was also a victim of sexual abuse.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, juvenile firesetters account for roughly half of those arrested for arson In 2003, 51 percent of those arrested were under 18, nearly one-third were under the age of 15, and 3 percent were under the age of 10, according to FBI statistics.

Juvenile arsonists are fairly rare in Clinton County, thankfully. Foresman said she has only dealt with two fire setters on a personal level in her career with juvenile probation.

Studies have also shown that the majority of normal children possess an interest in fire and nearly half have engaged in fire-play.

For Clinton County social services officials, that means determining the appropriate path for a firestarter can be a complicated matter.

According to Foresman, “Chuck” was found to have set fires in the past, but had never been caught in the act. It was also discovered that the child abused animals — an extremely disturbing behavior that indicated to local authorities that treatment would be required.

The crime and the evaluations set several administrative and judicial wheels turning. The local juvenile faced a court hearing and probation officers recommended a special treatment program.

The judge ordered “placement,” meaning a period of intense counseling in a secure facility.

Cornell Abraxas Youth Center in South Mountain, west of Gettysburg, has a treatment program geared specifically toward arsonists, but local authorities declined to say whether the local youth was sent to that facility.

There are others across the state, each emphasizing intense counseling in a secure, fire-safe setting.

Foresman would only say that the program addressed the need for public safety as well as treatment.

The child was visited monthly by a local probation officer and the court reviewed the case every six months.

The majority of child-set fires are started out of curiosity, but even then the danger can’t be ignored. According to FBI statistics, juvenile arson results in over 300 deaths and 2,000 injuries and $300 million in property damage annually.

Juveniles — like the one mentioned by the local probation department — can be arrested for the crime of arson. Several factors are taken into consideration for determining criminal intent, including the age, the nature and extent of the individual’s firesetting history, and the motive and intent behind the firesetting.

Psychologists say children who set fires show some common characteristics, including curiosity with fire, a lack of understanding fire’s danger, a recent change in family life (death, separation, divorce, move, abandonment); parental alcoholism or drug abuse; a history of behavioral problems including lying, stealing, truancy and cruelty to animals and bedwetting.

According to a 2003 study of Firesetting Behaviors conducted by The Pennsylvania State University’s College of Medicine juvenile pathological firesetters follow a pattern. They are predominantly male, by a 10-1 ratio, and the average age is eight.

They come from a varied socioeconomic background, but mostly from single parent households, or those with marital discord.

The youngsters are usually of normal intelligence but with higher rate of learning disabilities, and it’s likely at least one parent will have been diagnosed with an emotional problem, commonly a mood disorder.

Different levels of treatment are recommended for different levels of firestarters:

— Curiosity firesetters: non-punitive fire safety education in entertaining format

— Crisis firesetters: non-punitive fire safety education with focus on seriousness of act and potential consequences.

— Delinquent firesetters: Law enforcement-taught course presenting graphic images of burn victims and visits to burn clinic. Parents and children should be made aware of financial penalties of arson.

— Pathological firesetters: Inpatient psychiatric treatment with behavioral modification and pharmacological treatment.   

Foresman suggests that every child engaged in fireplay or firesetting behavior needs intervention — even in minor cases, and even if that intervention is limited to parental guidance or counseling.

Foresman said parents can be more aware of behavior, be willing to talk to kids, and should be prepared to discuss the realities of the law and the seriousness of the behavior.

After authorities determined the child was no longer a threat to the community, the child was released from the residential program and placed under supervision within the community.

Foresman said every step has been taken to insure the protection of local lives and property, and any behavior that suggests a return to former firesetting activity would likely result in a return to the secure facility.

Supervision will continue until the youngster reaches the age of 21.

According to a study by the Governor’s Fire and Emergency Services Task Force, Child firesetting and juvenile arson remain a pervasive and an incredibly destructive problem in Pennsylvania.

“And yet, in many community agencies, schools, and organizations dealing with children, caregivers never have been introduced to this problem with the real facts and provided information on the role that they can serve in being part of the solution,” the study concluded.

Fact Box

According to Focus Adolescent Services, an Internet clearinghouse of information and resources on teen and family issues about troubled and at-risk teens, juvenile firesetters fall into three general groups:
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— Children, mainly boys, under 7 years of age — Generally, fires started by these children are the result of accidents or curiosity.
— Children ranging in age from 8 to 12 — 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.
— Adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 — These youth tend to have a long history of undetected fire-play and firestarting behavior. Their current firesetting episodes are usually either the result of psychosocial conflict and turmoil or intentional criminal behavior. They have a history of school failure and behavior problems, and are easily influenced by their peers.



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