Youth Firesetter Prevention and Intervention
By Sue Ralston
Fire PatrolAugust 2015
By Sue Ralston
On a warm evening in May, a group of teenagers in a Shasta College classroom listens carefully as a convicted arsonist talks about how his life has changed since he served seven years in prison for his crime. “I have to register as an arsonist for life. Every time I want to move, I have to tell my landlord I’m a convicted arsonist. My freedom is over.”
This is just one aspect of a new program designed to keep youthful firesetters from becoming habitual firesetters. “People don’t realize there’s such a problem around here,” says Jennifer Shaw, a youth peer court coordinator with the Youth Violence Prevention Council of Redding. “But half of all fires in our area are lit by juveniles playing with matches and lighters.”
Shaw brings a personal passion to fire prevention. She and her daughter survived a non-arson apartment fire eight years ago. “Being treated in a burn unit is horrific,” she tells the kids assembled for their sessions. She shows slides of herself and her daughter in the burn unit, and emphasizes the huge impact it had on her family.
Along with J.T. Vulliger, battalion chief for Cal Fire, and Patrick O’Connor, a Redding Fire Department investigator, Shaw started a simple education course earlier this year for juvenile firesetters. In February, Shaw and O’Connor attended a training in Sacramento and developed the two-evening Youth Firesetter Prevention and Intervention course. “Eighty-five percent of kids who start fires will continue with it unless they enter a diversionary program,” says Shaw.
The program is mandatory for the kids and their families, and this first session recorded 100 percent attendance. Youth who complete the academy can avoid a juvenile criminal record.
Different classes are designed for ages 5 through 18 and for parents. Children ages 5 through 10 are taught about smoke detectors, staying away from matches and lighters and how to make an escape plan. They’re asked to really think about who was affected by the fire they or their sibling set.
Course content for 11- to 14-year-olds includes learning about the penal codes for firesetting, problemsolving and handling peer pressure. Homework includes writing an apology letter to a victim of their fire, and filling out three pages of questions such as who was present at the fire, whose idea it was, what was used to light it, what was burned and what made the juvenile think using fire was okay. No question can be left unanswered, and the emphasis is on fully admitting to the wrongdoing and recognizing that their own choices brought them there.
Older teens are confronted with more detailed exercises, including an examination of “thinking errors” – excuses people use to avoid responsibility for their actions. An extensive conversation is held about showing respect for peers and adults. They also hear from the convicted arsonist.
Susan Morris Wilson, executive director of the Youth Violence Prevention Council, emphasizes that the agency’s approach is not about punishment, it’s about restorative justice – the concept that the kids and families need to be accountable for their actions and make it right with those they have harmed. Parents of the youthful firesetters are required to attend the academy along with their children; siblings are strongly encouraged to attend, too.
Wilson leads the class for parents and lays out some of the basic steps of the Positive Parenting Program: create a safe, interesting environment; have a positive learning environment; have reasonable expectations and use assertive discipline. “If you know where your kids are, who they’re with and what they’re doing, they probably aren’t setting fires,” Wilson tells them. She teaches parents how to hold a family meeting, set up behavior contracts and reward good behavior. A key problem, she believes, is cell phone use. “I spend a lot of time talking about management of cell phones. Kids shouldn’t sleep with their cell phone. It’s isolating. Their whole world becomes that screen. And as adults, we’re setting a bad example.”
Shaw emphasizes that putting the course on is a team effort, with firefighters from the Shasta Arson Task Force committed to helping with the classes. “The firefighters see it from the front lines and are all very passionate about this program,” she says. “We really believe we’re making a difference in the lives of these kids.”