Young fire-setters present challenge for officials
Share with others:
When a 7-year-old girl playing with a lighter in her North Side home set her clothes on fire last month, she became among the latest in a string of troubling cases in which youngsters have caused themselves or others serious harm by toying with flames.
A 6-year-old Friendship boy known to set fires caused a blaze last month that left two people dead and his own family homeless. And detectives were investigating the possibility that 6- and 7-year-old Homewood brothers set their mother's mattress on fire in December, killing her, themselves and their 3-year-old sister.
Those cases captured media attention, but arson investigators say the problem of young fire-setters is much more widespread and frustrating for them as they seek help for the juvenile arsonists, some of whom are too young to arrest but too challenging for some social services.
By its own count, Pittsburgh's arson squad investigated 198 intentionally set blazes last year, at least 22 of which were at the hands of people younger than 18. And detectives say that only one-fourth of juvenile fires are reported, so the number is likely much higher.
Parents, fearing that they will be held responsible, often try to put the flames out themselves, and "it doesn't get reported until the fire is large enough that other people can see it and they have to call the fire department," Pittsburgh arson Detective Michael Burns said. Most children who set large fires have already set smaller ones.
Last year's cases included a 15-year-old boy who lit a schoolmate's pants on fire during a middle school science class; a girl who singed another girl's hair with a lighter; a group of pre-teens who torched a pair of vacant houses in Sheraden; and an 11-year-old boy who set his bunk beds on fire because he was mad at his babysitter.
Cases involving children 10 and older usually end in arrest and serious charges. Firefighters and arson investigators refer the younger fire-setters to mental health programs through places like Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, Mercy Behavioral Health and the Auberle Home in McKeesport.
"The only way we can get help for these kids is putting paper on them and putting them into the system," Detective Burns said. "We're not out to make stats of how many arrests we make. We recognize this is a serious problem. The younger they are, the easier it is to get them help."
Filing charges for crimes such as arson, reckless endangerment, risking or causing a catastrophe and criminal mischief forces young firebugs into court-appointed programs such as the county's Juvenile Firesetters Awareness course led by Allegheny County Deputy Fire Marshal Gene Stouffer.
For four hours in a classroom at the Allegheny County Emergency Operations Center, he shows teenagers videos of fast-moving fires and of other children sharing their own horror stories about the burns they suffered, the restitution they paid, and the time they served as a result of their fire-setting.
Mr. Stouffer interviews them about the reasons for their dangerous habits and urges them to take responsibility for themselves. Four teenagers were supposed to attend his course held on a night last month, but just two showed up. The others, Mr. Stouffer said, had been thrown in detention for committing other crimes.
The videos are dry, but the students seemed rapt. Among them was a boy who was 15 when he set his classmate's pants on fire at Arsenal Middle School in Lawrenceville and a girl who was the same age when she took a friend's lighter and set a smoky blaze in the bathroom of Career Connections Charter High School.
"I was just bored and not paying attention," the boy said in an interview. He found the lighter in a school bathroom and took it back to his class. "I helped him put his pants out. I didn't want his whole body to catch on fire."
The girl said she, too, did not intend to cause harm.
"I had a lot of stuff going on in my mind," she said.
About half of children who set fires are simply curious about it, said David Kolko, a University of Pittsburgh professor of psychiatry, psychology and pediatrics who has studied the problem for more than 30 years. At least 15 percent set fires because they are angry or crave attention and another 15 percent have unknown motives, he said.
Dr. Kolko, who has explored what treatment programs are most successful, said education that explores a child's motives and finds ways to improve home life in general often work well. But the youngest arsonists pose challenges.
"You must weigh severity of the consequences with naivete of a child," he said. When a fire-setter is too young to face charges, arson detectives can refer him to residential facilities, though some are reluctant to take fire-setters because they are known to re-offend. Investigators are left to deal with parents who are sometimes overwhelmed or aloof.
About 20 times a year, Pittsburgh fire Capt. Michael Zurawsky and two other members of the city's fire bureau visit the homes of certain juveniles, usually at the urging of arson detectives. Among their recent cases was a 14-year-old boy who lit a fire in the basement locker room of a city high school.
"He finally admitted it when I called him out on it," Capt. Zurawsky said. "It's almost like a parenting skill. You just try to tell him that his future is going to be in jeopardy if he gets a record. ... He seemed to understand what we were saying."
Parents, the captain said, are usually receptive. "We've had children where we've had to go back a second time."
On rare occasions, police exercise their option of involuntarily committing a firebug to a mental facility. In the case of the 6-year-old boy who burned down an apartment house in Graham Street in Friendship last month, killing two people who lived on the floor above him, Detective Burns knew he needed to find the child help. The boy's mother, who has two other sons, told police he had lit fires before and she was afraid. When the detective thought his options were waning, he contacted Mr. Stouffer.
"I said, we can't blow this off, we have to do something," Detective Burns said.
The boy was evaluated at Western Psychiatric before ultimately joining an arson prevention program through Auberle.
"At first everyone told us there was nothing we could do," said Mr. Stouffer, who said the case helped raise awareness about "what resources we can use to get these kids the help they need."
First Published March 4, 2012 12:00 am