[cifnmedia] Anti-arson project is aimed at young

  • From: Sean & Kimberly Aaron <cifn@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: CIFN LIST <cifnmedia@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Wed, 19 Nov 2003 21:05:23 -0800 (PST)

Anti-arson project is aimed at young
Signed pact with county seeks to stop curious kids from becoming criminals 
By Laura Barnhardt
Sun Staff
Originally published November 11, 2003

Vinny Julio is like a lot of seventh-graders in Baltimore County. He plays 
lacrosse and football after school, gets teased by his older sister and would 
like to become a professional athlete or maybe a lawyer when he grows up. 

He is also a recovering fire-setter. 

Taped to his bedroom wall above the television is his contract with the 
Baltimore County Fire Department: "I have learned the dangers of fire setting 
and I now know that what I did was wrong, could have hurt others and could have 
been considered a crime. I now promise never to set another fire." 

Signed and dated June, it is the first promise Vinny has ever put in writing. 
Firefighter Donald W. Adams Jr. calls the boy's Hereford family every month to 
make sure Vinny is sticking to it. 

Far from the first 12-year-old to play with a lighter or set paper on fire, 
Vinny is one of more than 300 children and teen-agers who have graduated from 
the county's Juvenile Fire-Setter Intervention Program, an effort aimed at 
stopping curious kids' seeking a thrill from becoming serial arsonists. 

Adams, the county's juvenile fire-setters program instructor, visits a lot of 
families like the Julios. He presents the children and parents with information 
about the consequences of fires -- how quickly the flames spread and how long 
it takes to recover from burns -- and assigns homework that may take a few 
days, or weeks. 

He also assesses the child's motive for setting fires and sometimes refers 
families to counseling or asks social service agencies to intervene. Then, 
Adams makes follow-up calls to the families until the child is fire-free for a 

"So often these families think they're the only ones dealing with this 
problem," Adams said. "They aren't." 

Juveniles victims, too 

About 300 people in the United States die each year in fires started by 
juveniles, he said. Another 2,500 people are injured -- many of them children, 
according to the U.S. Fire Administration. 

"The children are the ones most at risk," said Adams. "They're killing 
themselves and other children." 

National child and fire experts say it's important that juvenile fire-setting 
intervention programs include educational material and involve not only fire 
departments but other agencies such as schools and counseling services. 

"Even though children can have great vocabularies, they often don't have the 
words to attach to feelings. They will sometimes express themselves with 
fire-setting," said Pat Mieszala, president of Burn Concerns, a California 
consulting firm involved with juvenile arson prevention. "You have to deal with 
the underlying needs with social services and counseling, but you also need to 
deal with the fire-setting behavior and that has to do with education." 

Other fire departments in Maryland have similar programs, including Annapolis, 
and Howard and Montgomery counties. 

Baltimore County fire officials say the program has been highly successful so 
far: Only about 10 of the 350 participants have been caught setting another 
fire after completing the program. 

Average age is 11 

The average age of the county juvenile fire-setter is 11. Most are boys. 

About 67 percent of Baltimore County's juvenile fire-setters are curious 
thrill-seekers, according to Adams, who has been tracking program participants 
for the past three years. 

Twenty percent set fires to mask a social or emotional problem, such as abuse 
or stress. Twelve percent are categorized as delinquents because they are 
setting the fires with other juveniles. Only 1 percent are termed 
"pathological" fire-setters who may not benefit from the education program, 
said Adams. 

Adams tailors the program to each child's age and needs. For example, a 
10-year-old might have to write an apology letter to the fire department and 
collect canned goods for burn victims. A 13-year-old might be put in charge of 
creating a fire evacuation plan. 

"It's not just busy work," Adams said. "Our goal is for them to recognize what 
they've done, regret the actions -- not just getting caught -- and take steps 
to correct their behavior." 

This philosophy appeals to a lot of parents. "It gives them a chance to make a 
positive out of a negative," said a 50-year-old mother of three in Owings Mills 
who asked not to be identified because of her public job. "One of the best 
parts were the follow-up [phone calls]. I thought it was a great way of saying 
to the child: 'It still matters.'" 

Her 11-year-old son was picked up by police with several other boys for setting 
fire to a trash can near an apartment complex. One of his assignments was to 
write an essay about what could have happened as a result of that fire and then 
present his findings to a small class of other fire-setters. 

"By standing up in front of others and saying, 'This is what I could have done 
to someone else,' he had to own it," she said. "He had to say, 'Yeah, they were 
the ones with the matches, but I was there and I didn't do anything to stop 
it.' I think that's a valuable life lesson." 

Community problem 

The referrals to Adams come from police, hospitals, schools and sometimes fire 
investigators after they've determined a child in the house has started the 
fire. "It's not just a law enforcement problem or a fire department problem," 
Adams said. "It's a community problem." 

The program made an impression on Vinny, said his mother, Kitty Julio. 

When she discovered wax drippings after her son sprayed hair spray into the 
flame of a candle, she called the local fire station. She didn't know there was 
a program for the problem, but was pleased to find out about it. 

"They take this very seriously," said Julio, 46, a mother of five. "I'm glad 
this program exists. It's very good." 

Vinny agreed, even though he initially was upset that his mother called the 
fire department. Adams "taught me a lot of things, like that a fire can spread 
six times its size every two seconds," Vinny said. "Some of it scared me. He 
showed me a video of a kid who blew off his thumb. Another kid got burns all 
over his body." 

No, Vinny said, he won't be setting any more fires. "The system has its grasp 
on me." 

Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun | Get home delivery 

Sean A. Aaron (CIFN*1)
Central Illinois Fire Network

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