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Common Motives in Juvenile Arson Cases

Why Do Juveniles Commit Arson?

When we talk about arson, we are referring to the criminal act of deliberately setting fire to property. There are a few different kinds of arson crimes, including setting fire to someone’s property with fraudulent intent, such as burning someone’s house to collect insurance money. However, when it comes to juvenile arson, this is typically not the motive. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, juveniles, or those under 18, accounted for 46% of arson arrests over a five-year period.

Furthermore, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosions reports that 29% of the of the juvenile-involved fire incidents over a nine-year period were reported as accidental and 15% were classified as undetermined. This means that over half of the fires started by juveniles of that time period were classified as arson. The numbers are quite staggering, and they prompt many parents and members of the community to question the motives behind juvenile arson cases and what makes children so interested in fire in the first place.

It is common for children to be curious about fire, and the fires they start are often due to curiosity rather than ill will. However, the damages that these fires can lead to are nothing to play around with. In fact, according to the National Fire Protection Association, fires started by juveniles who were simply playing were associated with 110 deaths, 880 injuries, and $286 million in property damages over a period of four years.

The motives behind children’s tendency to start fires have been studied extensively in attempts to prevent this damage. One study published in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry concluded that fire-prone behaviors in children were related to broader psychopathology and family stress. The good news that came from this study was that interest in fire can be effectively identified in young children by using a brief screening measure.

Unfortunately, much of the time, adults are not concerned with children’s interest in fire until it is too late and the damage has been done. Therefore, it might help to look into the motives of the children who start fires in our efforts to prevent these damaging situations. As with many phenomena regarding children and crime in general, the motives tend to vary with age. Here are some of the ages of juveniles who tend to start fires and the most common motives for each:

  • Children (primarily boys) less than seven years of age

Although we do not like to stereotype, the truth of this matter is that males are more likely to play with fire than females. When age was noted as a factor in the case, 83% of home structure fires and 93% of unclassified fires were set by boys, according to the National Fire Protection Association. This leads us to believe that many boys are simply curious about the way fire works. We call this category “curiosity fire setters.” It might help to draw on that curiosity and teach them about the dangers of fire through fire safety practices. Some of the best fire safety tips that can help protect children include:

  • Avoid playing with matches and lighters
  • Check the house for smoke detectors and fire hazards
  • Create a family fire safety plan and make sure the child is aware of the plan
  • Practice the family fire safety plan, which can instill a sense of responsibility in the child
  • Make your child aware of the fire safety rule: "Don’t hide – go outside!"
  • Make your child aware of the “stop, drop, and roll” rule in case their clothes are ever on fire
  • Make sure they know to never go back inside a burning building
  • Make sure they know their emergency phone numbers
  • Children ranging from ages 8-12

Some of the children who start fires at this age were motivated by curiosity as well. However, it is at this age that we start to see fire setting being associated with psychosocial conflicts. In that case, these children might have reached the “problem fires setter” stage, in which they are acting out of feelings of frustration. If this is the case, and your child has shown a concerning interest in fires, it might be wise to start therapy with your child to work through their needs and help them establish healthy coping mechanisms.

Types of interventions might include traditional psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, family therapy, treatment for depression, medication consultation, behavior management, empathy training, relaxation techniques, social skills training, and special education. This wide range of possibilities might sound intimidating at first, but your doctor will be able to guide you in the right direction and create a plan that is simple and manageable for your child. If your child falls into this category, you are already taking a step in the right direction by getting them the help they need.

  • Adolescents ranging from ages 13-18

If your child has reached this age and is showing interest in fires, they might still be in the “problem fire setter” stage, but it is also possible that they have reached the “delinquent fire setter” stage, and they are acting out to rebel against authority. These children are aware of the dangers associated with fires and are setting them on purpose to create destruction. However, in these cases, it might not be that they are rebelling simply to rebel, but that they are also in need of healthier coping mechanisms. Professional help should definitely be sought at this stage and can come in one of the techniques mentioned above.

If a juvenile is charged with arson, they might have more options than an adult in terms of their punishment, but that does not mean they will be able to walk free. Because of the fact that arson can lead to injuries, death, and property damage, it is possible that a juvenile could be tried as an adult depending on the severity of the damages or injuries. In many cases, the court might mandate treatment instead of incarceration, but the best way to produce the most favorable outcome will be to consult with a criminal defense attorney like Peter Barrett.

If your child is facing arson charges, or you are dealing with other federal charges, Peter Barrett can provide the staunch defense you need. Give us a call at (214) 307-8667 or contact us online to find out how we can help.

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