Juvenile Arson On Steady Rise As Prevention Programs Die

Bill Alexander
September 1, 1997

Malcolm Shabazz fantasized about a made-up cartoon character called Sinister Torch. At the age of three, he set fire to a pair of sneakers in the middle of the night. Earlier this summer, at 12, he set fire to a Yonkers, N.Y, apartment and killed his grandmother Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X.

Serial arsonist Paul Keller, with a history of juvenile fire-setting, went on a six month burning spree in Washington state in 1992-93 that took three lives and caused $16 million in property damage.

Last summer, a "very troubled' 13-year-old white girl was charged with burning down an African-American church in Charlotte, N.C.

While such stories are filling daily headlines, youth arson/juvenile firesetter prevention and intervention programs proven to substantially reduce recidivism and fires are being hit with budget cuts that either cause them to bite the dust or render them ineffective.

According to FBI statistics, fire association reports and university studies, juveniles accounted for more than half (52 per-cent) of all arson arrests in 1995, While adult arson arrests declined from 1986 to 1995, Juvenile arson arrests jumped in the same period by 40 percent. In addition:

-Thirty-three percent of juveniles arrested were under age 15 (In 1994, nearly 7 percent were under 10);

-Eighty-four percent of juveniles arrested were males;

-Fifty-five percent of school arsons were committed by juveniles;

-There were 414 deaths and 2,904 injuries resulting from the fires;

-Direct property damage amounted to $296 million;

-Fire is the leading cause of death in the home for children under five, 30 percent of whom die in fires set themselves;

-As few as 10 percent of the fires started by children are reported because a family member will discover and put out the fire; and

-Without skilled intervention programs Juvenile firesetters have an 81 percent recidivism rate.

"Juveniles are arrested for a greater share of this crime (arson) than any other," wrote Eileen Carry, special assistant to Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Administrator Shay Bilchik, in a recent department fact sheet. "Prevention and early intervention programs are needed."

"Once upon a time," says insurance investigator Bill Lundy "captains of fire houses allowed first-time juvenile fire-setters a ride on the fire engine to show them how friendly firefighters were. The youngsters thought they were being rewarded and in a number of cases set a fire the next day to get another ride on
the truck. The problem is serious because our kids are going down the tubes. We need programs that work."

Sounding The Alarm

"We've saved more lives through our fire education program than any fire engine in this city." said a still-fuming Don Forth, director of public education and a juvenile firesetter specialist for the Portland (Ore.) Fire Bureau. In July, Porth was notified by his bosses that the budget for his ambitious 11-year-old prevention/intervention program — with its networking links to parents, the juvenile justice system, the schools, and child welfare and mental health services — was being cut in half. His staff would be downsized from six to three and they would handle other duties as well. His budget, like similar programs around the country, consists mainly of the salaries paid to the on-duty investigators who often double as youth workers.

"It's embarrassing. It took us years of pushing and pushing to get the courts, the medical community the child welfare people on board... to build trust for referrals, counseling, intervention efforts. Now with basically only two of the three of us able to deal with the pro-gram, we must restrict our-selves to referrals
from parents and say no to everyone else," said a frustrated Forth.

The father of two young boys, Porth, 38, came into the department as a front-line fire-fighter. But opted for juvenile firesetter work, when, he said, he realized he was helping put out fires that could have been prevented. His program, which has dealt with over 2,000 juveniles since coming into existence, has documented its impact with low recidivism rates tied to family and youth follow-ups that have reaped results. Although the overall Portland Fire Bureau budget was cut by only 10 percent, the juvenile firesetters operation's 50 percent slash translates to $110,000 for two staff— less than the annual cost of housing and treating Malcolm Shabazz.

Up-Front Money Needed

Although her program has not suffered the gutting Porth's did. Carol Gross of the Phoenix Fire Department's Youth firesetter Prevention program, expressed a tinge of Porth-like frustration when informed of the $177,000 cost to the state of New York for remanding Shabazz to an 18-month stay at Hillcrest Education Center in Lenox, Mass.— where the specialty is treating youngsters with severe anti-social behavior.

Gross said, by comparison, that as the administrator it took her seven years to get $200,000 in grants for the Phoenix program, which, like Porth's once did, provides a community network of social services, education and counseling intervention for youth and families with a juvenile firesetting experience. "That money should have gone up front, I would have gotten to him when he was three years old [when the first incident was reported]," she said "We're usually the first to go." Said Lisa Hayes, youth worker in the Houston Arson Bureau's Safety Awareness and Fire Education Targeting Youth (SAFETY) program. "This program was killed ten years ago. We just started up a year ago from ground zero."

Hayes' agency, with its referrals from schools, arson investigations, and the juvenile justice system has already involved 105 youth in its 12 prevention, intervention classes this year. The under-10 age group, however, is out of bounds. "Texas law doesn't allow them to be detained ... you can't touch them," says Hayes.

What Is A Firesetter?

Although juveniles who set fires come from every social class, ethnic group, and age level, they often have behavioral warning signs, Jessica Gaynor, who gained a national reputation in the early 1980s with the pioneering nonprofit San Francisco-based Firehawk program-— a kind of Big Brothers approach involving firefighters and youth — has become a much-in-demand consultant on juvenile firesetting for community organizations, police and fire departments, schools, and local state and government agencies. The now-defunct grant funded Firehawk program, which offered its services without charge, had its ideas and concepts taken over by aggressive for-profit agencies, said Gaynor, and she was subsequently driven out of the field.

Gaynor has defined three phases of juvenile fire behavior: fire interest (curiosity), fireplay and firesetting. Fire interest is experienced by the majority of children between the ages of three to five years; they may ask questions such as, "How hot is fire?" and "What makes fire burn?" Fireplay occurs when children experiment with matches, lighters or other firestarting materials; this behavior usually occurs between the ages of five and nine, predominantly in young boys. Pathological firesetting is characterized by a history of multiple fire starts taking place over at least a six-month period. The nature and extent may vary, ranging from parents finding burned candles concealed in their youngsters' rooms to fires requiring fire department suppression.

Some instances of Juvenile firesetting can be heart-rending. Travis Cain, an OJJDP program manager, related an incident she came across while helping compile information on a youth arson initiative co-sponsored by her office and the U.S. Fire Administration. "A child who was being sexually molested in New York City led authorities to a child abuse ring by setting fires that got closer and closer to the group's hideout."

Birthday Candles and Barbeques

"Just because a child plays with fire doesn't mean they are a, problem child," cautions Lisa Lapsansky. a pub lie educator for King County District 40 in Renton, Wash. "However, it does mean that the child needs additional education about the danger and proper uses of fire, as does the child's family Through education, and in some cases counseling, children can be given the skills to change this dangerous and deadly behavior."

The vast majority of fires set by children stem from innocent fireplay where the intent to do harm is absent. Birthday candles, incense, gas stoves, barbecues, and campfires, in their allure to children, all minimize the dangers of the smallest flame. In this con-text, adult behavior patterns can often determine whether fire associated with friendly times will become friendly fire.

Testimony given before the now-abolished House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families in 1992 by Herta Feely,of the Washington, D.C,-based National Safe Kids Campaign, for example, pointed out that children in low-income families are at risk because their parents cannot afford appropriate supervision. Said Feely: "This may result in young children left alone in the home or under the care of an older sibling while their parents are working. Studies show that fires started by children playing with matches and lighters is the leading cause of fire deaths for preschool-aged children.

Matches And Lighters

Lapsansky and Don Forth have joined forces to create SOS Fires, a private consulting company dealing with youth intervention programs. Their research has shown that a child in a home with a smoker will be twice as likely to be involved with fireplay as a child in a home with a non-smoker.

A study of deaths caused by children living in Portland conducted over a nine-year period revealed that children are two-and-a-half times more likely to take a life playing with a match or lighter than they are by accidentally firing a loaded gun.

While cigarette-smoking adults do not cause children to play with fire, the example they set may enhance temptation. "Numerous times a day a smoker will hold that flame within inches of his or her face," says Forth, "and this same person will tell a child that the use of a match or lighter will kill someone or destroy property."

But the child, says Forth, has just seen an adult use the device in what appears to be a safe manner. "This confuses the child because a child's primary method of learning is through what they see, not what is said."

Some 40 percent of all set fires are caused by children playing with matches. While legislation requiring all disposable lighters sold in the United States to have a child-resistant mechanism went into effect July 1 1994, lighter manufacturers were allowed to exhaust their inventory of lighters made before passage of the law. These pre-law lighters can still be found on store shelves.

Different Approaches

Different approaches prevail nation-wide as to methods dealing with juvenile firesetting.

Irene Pinsonneault, the much-admired youth worker for the fire prevention program in Bristol" County, Mass., believes, "You've got to get them [youthful offenders] early and come down on them hard ... make them responsible for their actions." She told the Boston Herald that making them use their free time to clean up a neighborhood or similar projects works very well. Her program has less than a 10 percent recidivism rate.

Tim Adams, chairperson of Oklahoma City's Operation FireSAFE, operated by the Oklahoma City Fire Department and the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments, takes a different tact.

"I tell the youth that we're not a punishment program, we're an education program and the issue will be confidential with us, you and the referral agency," said Adams.

Referrals come from juvenile court, child welfare agencies and arson investigators. The low-keyed intervention efforts which include counseling and a rigorously time-tabled follow-up — "We keep track of our kids," says Adams — has resulted in what he calls "one of the best proactive/reactive programs in the country." He calls the eight-person staff "92 percent effective."

Carol Gross and Don Forth have created forms, evaluations, and follow-ups that not only track repeat firesetter offenders, but zero in on the presence and availability of matches and lighters in the home.

A Tale of Two Cities

Porth's Portland program is purely voluntary, so if an agency says go there it is still up to the individual or family to make the final call. With the exception of one or two years, slightly more people have elected not to participate. For example, during 1995-96, of the 285 referrals, 103 juveniles showed up. Portland's mail and phone follow-up is four months after the initial in-person interview with the parents and the youth, where it is determined which combination of youth services may be best: more one-on-one counseling, fire safety classes, mental health counseling, scholastic help, etc. It is here that Forth and his investigators determine by the nature of the fire and the personality of the juvenile his or her placement in the categories of: "little concern" or curious fire interest, "definite concern," and "extreme concern" for those fitting a classic firesetter profile. Of the 103 seen, 40 families responded to the follow-up. Of that number, only one "little concern" teen set another fire.

Other features of the Portland program that have worked include the introduction of the Learn-Not-To-Burn preschool curriculum developed by the National Fire Protection Association into the 29 Head Start programs in the area that serve the 3- to 5-year-old population of "curious" firesetters. There has been a drop of over 50 percent in this referral category, from 6.2 percent in 1992 to 1.8 percent thus far in FY '97. Another program, "Play It Safe In The Parks," an interactive out-door fire-and-safety presentation, which was introduced during July and August of 1990, has single-handedly, according to Forth, cut the juvenile firesetter referrals during those months from 35.3 percent in 1990 to 27.3 percent today. Carol Gross' 18-year-old Youth Firesetter program in Phoenix, a component of the $2.9-million Public Fire Safety budget, has the blessing of her bosses "who understand that rather than beat them up, we have to educate them." Her agency, she says, deals in "customer service" for both voluntary and mandatory diversion program referrals. Thus far this year, her agency has handled 395 voluntary juveniles and 800 referred by juvenile court diversion programs.

Phoenix's youth arson arrests have plummeted from 70 percent of all arson arrests in 1994 to 35 percent in 1996. "We reach out," says Gross. The counseling services, for example, may be activated the instant a family calls for assistance with a firesetting problem. The Phoenix Fire Department formed a partnership with the city's St. Luke's Behavioral Health Center, which offers a family appointment within 48 hours. The initial assessment is paid for by program grant monies, while further counseling is covered by the family's private insurance or already-budgeted funds from the fire department.

As in Portland, Phoenix also uses the Learn-To-Burn-Curriculum in its 60 Head Start sites with equally good results.

"We understand these services are important," says Gross, "we cannot block them off to our youngsters."

She is well aware of the programs nationwide that are endangered because she networks with many of those who are threatened. "Most of the fire departments in this country are volunteer departments, with only a full-time, salaried captain. If a parent should call them with a problem, they don't have the staff, the knowledge, or the interest to help. "Call someplace else," they might say. They don't care. They don't worry about it.

"But a three-year-old who sets a fire that kills his four-year-old brother will live with that all through the rest of his life. Those of us who can do something must be there to help these youngsters." If the budget-cutters allow.


Don Porth

Director of Public Education

Juvenile Firesetter Specialist

Portland Fire Bureau

55 SW Ash St.

Portland, OR 97204

(503) 823-3615

Fax: (503) 823-3843

Carol Gross

Program Administrator

Phoenix Fire Department

Urban Services Division

150 S. 12th St.

Phoenix, AZ 85034-2301

(602) 262-7712

Jessica Gaynor

630 Saint Francis Blvd.

San Francisco, CA 94127-3060

(415) 753-3060

Loretta Worters

Director of Public Relations

Insurance Information Institute, Inc.

110 Warn St.

New York, NY 10038

(212) 669-9221

Fax: (212) 791-1807

Travis Cain

Program Manager

Special Emphasis Division Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention

633 Indiana Ave., NW

Washington, DC 20531

(202) 616-3655

Paul Schwartzman

National Fire Services Support Systems, Inc.

150 S. Plymouth Ave., Rm. 300

Rochester, NY 14614

(716) 264-0840

Captain Steve McClary

Rochester Fire Dept.

Public Safety Bldg Rm. 306

Civic Center Plaza

Rochester, NY 14614

(716) 428-7036

Alexander, Bill. " Juvenile Arson On Steady Rise As Prevention Programs Die." Youth Today, Sept/Oct 1997, p. 1.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.