Academic journal article Child Welfare

Severe vs. Nonserve Firesetters Revisited

Academic journal article Child Welfare

Severe vs. Nonserve Firesetters Revisited

Article excerpt

The study reported here compares a group of 75 severe firesetters with a group of 105 nonfiresetters and minor firesetters along 32 variables that have been positively correlated with juvenile firesetting behavior. A chisquare analysis of the data revealed that the frequencies observed in the 75 "severe" cases differ significantly from those in the "nonsevere" group. A prediction equation was derived from the 14 most salient variables. This equation can be used to differentiate severe/high-risk from minor/low-risk firesetters 95% of the time.

Firesetting by children and adolescents is a dangerous act that often has grave consequences, including destruction of property, personal injury, and even death. In the child welfare system, group and foster homes, as well as residential treatment centers, are reluctant to accept into placement any child with a history of firesetting. Administrators and clinicians who must make such placement decisions are rightly concerned with the safety of the other children in their care, as well as the safety of the staff. Children who may have set fires in their foster homes also need evaluations, as well as recommendations as to whether it is safe for them to remain in a foster home and be treated in the community, or whether their psychological profile is that of a persistent, severe firesetter, who should be placed in a residential treatment center or in a psychiatric hospital for the safety of the community and for their own protection.

The literature indicates that one in every four firesetters may be a recidivist [Kolko 1985]. Methods or techniques that enable clinicians to distinguish reliably among subgroups of firesetters and assess the degree of risk for future firesetting are helpful in arriving at appropriate placement decisions. For example, one obvious distinction among subgroups is that in the severe group there is the intent to do damage, while in the minor group there is a curiosity and taking pleasure in the sensory properties of fire. While minor-risk juvenile firesetters are often best treated in the community with fire-safety education and child and family counseling, most severe firesetters require placement in a residential treatment center, or if they are severely psychiatrically ill, in a residential treatment facility or psychiatric hospital.* The psychological profile described in this article offers a proven technique for differentiating between "severe" and "nonsevere" firesetters with a high level of confidence.

Although the definition of a firesetter may seem self-evident, the term actually refers to one or more aspects of a complicated process. A firesetter may be defined by act, intent, effect, or intrapsychic dynamics. According to Nichtern [1979: 1], a firesetter is "an individual who has the impulse to set fires with objectives unrelated to the socially accepted uses of fire." Pathological firesetting (pyromania) represents an unusual or bizarre impulse to set fire and is related to a desire to destroy things by fire. Kuhnley and colleagues [1982: 560] point out that the behavior is pathological if it "is repetitive or poses a danger of destruction to person or property." DSM-IV [American Psychiatric Association 1994: 90] lists firesetting as a symptomatic act under the rubric of Conduct Disorder, and as a disorder identified by a "repetitive and persistent pattern of conduct in which either the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules are violated." It lists firesetting among such associated acts of physical violence as rape, vandalism, breaking and entering, and assault.

Clinical experience indicates that firesetting rarely occurs as an isolated symptom [Kaufman 1962], but rather in constellation with a variety of other delinquent-related behaviors. This has prompted some investigators to think of firesetting as a syndrome [Macht & Mack 1968]. Based on the early literature on firesetting using myth, anecdotal material, and rational considerations to investigate the phenomenon, researchers began to examine individual cases of firesetters in depth as a way to better understand and identify underlying psychodynamics [Simmel 1949; Macht & Mack 1968; Awad & Harrison 1976; McGrath et al. …

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