A Comparative Study of the Behavioral, Personality, and Fire History Characteristics of Residential and Outpatient Adolescents (Ages 12-17) with Firesetting Behaviors

Article excerpt


Juvenile firesetting has become a major problem in the United States. Once viewed by many as a crime perpetrated primarily by adults, arson committed by children under the age of 18 are responsible for over 50% of all arson arrests (Snyder, 1988). The impact of the damage created by juvenile firesetting has been documented by various sources. The residential and commercial property loss and damages resulting from juvenile firesetting is $240 million per year (National Fire Prevention Association, 1997). Even more alarming is that burn injuries are the second leading cause of accidental death for children under the age of 6, and between 40-50% of children and adolescents admitted for burn treatment were burned in fires they set (Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 1988). The most startling fact is that children under the age of 5 account for nearly 40% of all fire-related deaths, a rate that is more than double that for any other age group (Hall, 1997). Millions of dollars are spent each year to treat burn victims, and while many are severely disfigured physically, no amount of money can compensate for the emotional trauma experienced.

While statistics speak to the scope of the problem there is still limited research in comparison to studies of other adolescent behavior problems (Kolko, 2003). The first scientific study on children with firesetting behavior is credited to Helen Yarnell in 1940 and later Lewis and Yarnell (1951) introduced the "ego triad" which proposed that enuresis and cruelty to animals were co-morbid factors with adolescent firesetting behavior. In the 1960s, Nucombe (1964) suggested that firesetting behavior was a symptom resulting from multiple factors. Further, Macht and Mack (1968) viewed firesetting as a "complex phenomenon with multiple determinants and multiple intrapsychic functions for the individual." By the early 1980s, social learning theory was applied to firesetting behavior in adolescents. Vreeland and Levin (1980) supported the notion that social skill deficits played a role in the ability to directly express anger and that fire behaviors give the adolescent control without direct confrontation. Fineman (1980) proposed a dynamic-behavioral model, looking at the environmental, historical, and antecedent variables acting on the adolescent instead of profiling by psychological variables. He was first to suggest that a negative life event could trigger firesetting behavior, therefore paving the way for Kolko and Kazdin (1986) to establish three domains of risk factors that may predispose adolescents to be at risk for firesetting. The domains include early modeling, personal repertoire such as cognitive and behavioral skills, and parent and family factors such as parental pathology, level of supervision and involvement as well as stress in the home.

In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, recent efforts have been undertaken to address juvenile firesetting with passage of the Rosenberg Law. This law was created to provide protection for children and adolescents in the care of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services through statutory requirements that placement recommendations for children exhibiting firesetting behaviors be made as a result of a specific evaluation referred to as an Assessment for Safe and Appropriate Placement (ASAP). During the past several years, many juveniles have been placed in residential treatment centers as a result of their participation in the Rosenberg Law initiative and concerns related to their firesetting behavior.

Currently, no research-based information is available that defines the treatment and intervention needs specific to adolescents with firesetting behavior who have been placed in a residential setting. In addition, no literature is available that describes whether these adolescents have treatment needs that are different from adolescents with firesetting behavior who are seen in outpatient settings. …


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