Feature

A 4-year-old boy set a stuffed animal ablaze as he played with a lighter on his bed. He then shut his bedroom door behind him and joined his family for dinner, leaving the room to burn.

Within 20 minutes, the smoke detector blared. The house filled with smoke. And the boy's bedroom was engulfed in flames, causing $100,000 in damages.

Later, when a psychologist asked the boy why he didn't tell anyone about the fire, he replied, "I thought if I closed the door it would go away."

Such cases could signify a child has an underlying psychological problem and uses fire as a way to communicate pain, depression or anger--and in those incidences, psychologists' intervention can help prevent the child from playing with fire again, says developmental psychologist Michael Slavkin, PhD, who works with fire departments on juvenile fire-setting prevention and treatment.

However, mental health screening for fire-setting appears low: A 1999 survey of 300 psychotherapists by the National Association of State Fire Marshals found therapists had a limited awareness and knowledge about juvenile fire-setting and treatments.

Slavkin says psychologists could help reduce the estimated $2 billion in damages caused each year by child fire-play by adding it to their typical intake assessments and working more closely with their communities on fire prevention (see box for additional child fire-play statistics).

One of those leading that charge is Slavkin, who in 2000 partnered with the Evansville, Ind., fire department to establish a task force for educating and treating juvenile fire-setters. The task force pairs juvenile fire-setters with mental health professionals and firefighters--200 children have participated to date. Involved firefighters provide lessons on fire-safety education; psychologists address the mental health component.

"Fire departments want to partner with mental health professionals because they know the ramifications of what happens when kids play with fire," says Slavkin, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern Indiana.

Departments need the most help with 2- to 5-year-old children and adolescents, Slavkin notes: Very young children tend to experiment with matches and burn pieces of paper--often trying to hide the fire-play in their bedrooms or closets. Typically, fire-play drops off during elementary school, when students receive fire-safety education. Then, he says, it resurfaces in middle school, when adolescents--either through delinquency or carelessness--set brush fires, trash-can fires, house fires and the like.

What sparks fire-setting

Curbing such fire-setting among youngsters begins with understanding why they do it, fire-prevention professionals say. Sometimes the behavior is more a symptom of a larger problem than a problem in itself, Slavkin says. For example, a child may set a piece of paper or object on fire out of frustration or sadness, Slavkin says.

Psychologist Ken Fineman, PhD, who treats juvenile fire-setters, says multiple factors--such as personality characteristics and family and social circumstances--drive most fire-setting behavior. Such factors help provide clues to whether the fire-setter's behavior is pathological or nonpathological, says Fineman, who has conducted court evaluations on juvenile fire-setters and works with them in his private practice in Fountain Valley, Calif.

To gauge whether a fire-setter's behavior is pathological, environmental or, more simply, derived from curiosity, firefighters often use psychologist-developed assessment questionnaires. The questionnaires evaluate characteristics such as aggression, sensation- or attention-seeking, difficulty interacting with others, deviance or conduct problems--all of which researchers have linked with fire-play.

Children who the assessments deem curiosity fire-setters tend to have a single incident of fire-play and often require just fire-safety education. On the other hand, if the assessments deem a child's fire-play pathological, a psychologist typically steps in to screen for depression, conduct or aggression problems and provide treatments such as cognitive-behavioral or family therapy (see sidebar for fire-setter types and common treatments associated with each).

If, however, the assessments reveal the child's fire-play is more environmentally driven--due to, for example, limited parental supervision, peer influence or exposure to fire at an early age--the best interventions may involve child, parental and peer education.

Building partnerships

Some psychologists find the most effective means of providing such fire-setting treatment and education is through direct work with fire departments. For example, Fineman contributes to the fire-prevention efforts of the 13 fire stations in Orange County, Calif., through a multiagency coalition of mental health professionals, educators, law enforcement personnel and juvenile justice officials. This program, called the Fire FRIENDS--Fire-setter Regional Intervention Education Network and Delivery System--was formed in 1996 to intervene with and prevent recidivism among the county's 2- to 18-year-olds, who set 40 to 60 percent of its reported fires.

"The fire department may be the ones who have to always respond to the problem, but we're poorly equipped to stop it alone," says firefighter and program coordinator Kathleen Higland.

With the other professionals' help, Orange County firefighters now identify and educate fire-setters and their families on fire safety. If a child is identified as a pathological fire-setter, he or she receives free behavioral health-care treatment from Children's Hospital of Orange County (CHOC).

Fineman, who trains firefighters on giving assessments to fire-setters, has also helped train CHOC psychologists and interns to treat fire-setters. He is improving assessment tools that identify fire-setters as well as developing information packets--including information on fire-setter types, assessment forms and treatments--to help guide therapists doing first-time work with these children.

Joining in such outreach effortsis mental health counselor Paul Schwartzman, who also works with fire departments and psychologists on juvenile fire-setting and has given presentations across the country to raise awareness among APA divisions and psychologists. Schwartzman, a counselor at Fairport Counseling Services in Fairport, N.Y., says psychologists have fire-setting-related treatment competencies, such as working with individuals and families and understanding environmental and group dynamics.

"Many psychologists believe they don't have these kids in their caseload," Schwartzman says. "But they do. They just don't know they do." More psychologists need to ask their young clients whether they have a history of fire-play, he says.

To provide practitioners with fire-setting treatment models and tools, Schwartzman teamed with Slavkin and Fineman on a book, "Treatment of Youth and Adult Arson," due out later this year from Wiley.

Like Schwartzman, co-author Slavkin advises more practitioner attention to fire-setting behavior.

"We need to take the time to ask our clients if they are playing with fire," Slavkin says. "More often than not, lay people and professionals alike are surprised at the responses."