Arson Is Soaring, and 70 Percent of the Fires May Be Set by Kids, An Expert Warns

updated 12/03/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/03/1979 AT 01:00 AM EST

"Brian has set fire to the couch—hurry!" These were the last words that Dave Norris, the police chief of Pioneer, Ohio, heard from his mother-in-law, Gladys Coats. By the time firemen arrived at her boardinghouse last month, the blaze apparently started by a 4-year-old playing with matches had killed 14 of the 27 boarders, mostly elderly or retarded women. Among the casualties: Mrs. Coats, 62, who went back into the burning building to rescue other residents.

Fires set by children—either accidentally or on purpose—are a tragic and growing problem in the U.S. Deliberate fires come under the heading of criminal arson, which last year cost society more money than any other crime except burglary, and—more important—1,070 lives. Psychologist Kenneth Fineman became interested in juvenile (up to age 18) fire setters while studying court reports for his Ph.D. at UCLA. Realizing the need for contact between psychologists and firemen to understand the causes of arson, Fineman set up a joint group called the Fire Panel. Its first meeting attracted representatives from 35 fire departments in several Western states. In California the panel evolved into the Arson Prevention Committee within the State Psychological Association. The committee has received federal grants.

Fineman, 36, assistant clinical professor of medical psychology at the University of California, Irvine, has treated hundreds of juvenile fire setters. He discussed his findings with Sue Ellen Jares of PEOPLE.

How much does arson cost society?

In 1978 fires set with malicious intent or for profit destroyed nearly 174,000 structures worth more than $1 billion. In addition to the deaths, nearly 2,000 people were injured. These figures do not include accidental fires set by youngsters.

Is arson a growing problem?

Yes, although it's being checked here in Los Angeles County through our educational and preventive program. U.S. figures for 1971-77 show that arson rose nearly 80 percent.

How many of these fires are deliberately set by juveniles?

A conservative estimate is 25 percent, although other estimates go as high as 70 percent.

Are such children pyromaniacs?

No. We generally think of a pyromaniac as a very disturbed person. You can have a child pyro, although I've never seen one under 7. I did evaluate an 8-year-old who was a borderline psychotic. He lit fires for the pleasure of seeing them burn. He was caught only because he was across the street taking pictures of a fire with a little camera.

Why do children set fires?

Often it is a bona fide accident, a curiosity situation. With a 5-or 6-year-old, the parent usually isn't supervising the child and hasn't taught basic safety. However, a continuous pattern of accidents may indicate a more serious problem.

What is the profile of the under-7-year-old fire setter?

If we eliminate curiosity as the motive and accident as the reason, we have a child with psychological problems. Many of these children have minimal brain dysfunction (MBD), which usually means they have difficulty handling their impulses. Bed-wetting and cruelty to animals are common traits, as well as fighting, stealing, temper tantrums, nightmares and extreme mood changes.

What about the older child?

The same characteristics prevail, but as the child gets older peer pressure plays more of a part and delinquency becomes the motivating factor. Pre-teenagers have a strong need for attention. They find they can get a great deal of it by the simple act of lighting a match and throwing it somewhere.

What about peer pressure?

The teenager who's not getting consistent positive attention from the parent may develop an intense need to affiliate with a peer group. He'll do anything—like breaking the fire alarm or lighting a trash can at school—for recognition by his friends.

Are more girls setting fires?

Yes, but it's still mostly boys. The girls who do it are usually severely disturbed, retarded or psychotic. Girls generally use less aggressive, less violent devices for projecting their anger and hostility.

What attracts juveniles to arson?

When a teenager is out there burning something, he has a sense of power over society, authority, his parents. He can control a whole fire department, can get attention with a flick of a match. The disturbed teenager really has this need. Negative attention is better than no attention at all.

Can these youngsters be helped?

Yes, 90 percent can be helped very effectively with qualified clinical psychologists or psychiatrists. But we need to educate our own professionals and fire departments. Some people think every teenager who sets fires is doing it because he finds it sexually exciting, and that consequently they're dealing with a psychotic or a borderline schizophrenic. It's not true.

Does this attitude deter treatment?

Frequently hospitals refuse to accept fire setters for fear they will burn the place down. At the Huntington Intercommunity Hospital we have a crisis child center unit, and we haven't had a fire there yet.

How does therapy work?

I treated a 12-year-old boy who first set a mattress on fire; when that was ignored he set trash cans on fire. I worked with the boy and his mother, who was divorced, for six months. The boy was having difficulty with his mother's fiancé and didn't want the man as a stepfather. The boy was bright enough to verbalize. Once the family started talking, he didn't need to call attention to his problems. It's a good example of fire setting that wasn't really malicious.

What about a youngster whose actions are malicious?

We had one 16-year-old who ran around with a gang that threw Molotov cocktails at cars. It was malicious. He wasn't trying to call attention to himself or his problems; he just wanted to get away with it. But the cops were smarter than he was. He showed little guilt and was only sorry he had been caught. He could easily have fallen into other types of crime if his group had said let's rip off gas stations.

How were you able to work with him?

Reality therapy, which made him feel responsible for his own behavior and its consequences, was effective. He could see that setting fires—especially since he had been caught once—could not gratify his needs. He was well known in the neighborhood; if anything happened, the police would be at his doorstep in a second. We forced his parents, who were only minimally responsive, to put the screws on, establishing limits on whom he could see, how late he could stay out. He stopped setting fires, but he may have found some other asocial behavior.

Does fire setting cut across social and economic lines?

Yes, and the common element is usually a chaotic home.

Do parents generally know?

When I asked kids this, half the time they said, "No, I never let them know. I did it in the woods with some friends." But the other half admitted, "Yeah, they knew." When I asked if parents took them to a fire station or gave them a hellfire-and-brimstone lecture, they'd say, "No, they just told me not to do it again." Frequently the mother would say to me, "His father wouldn't allow me to bring him in; he doesn't believe in psychologists."

Are the courts too lenient?

Yes, at times. I don't care whether it's children or adults—sometimes they don't belong in society. The child or adolescent should be intensively evaluated; he may be so dangerous he needs institutionalization and mandatory therapy.

How effective is this therapy?

For juvenile fire setters therapy is very effective; for adults it's questionable. With young people you are dealing with a variety of external pressures over which they have little control. Often the therapist can go into the home and make helpful changes they couldn't make on their own.

What is your advice to parents?

Don't wait until something disastrous happens, like an injury or a death. You must act quickly and do one of two things: If you live in an area with a psychologically trained fire department, bring in the child for evaluation, education or referral. If there is not an appropriately trained fire department, take the lead and get help, either privately or publicly. We know education and prevention programs work. It doesn't necessarily mean three years on the couch. Early detection is the key.

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