Juvenile Firesetters: When Is It Arson?

Recently some media sources have been reporting that a juvenile arsonist is allegedly responsible for one of the recent wildland fires in Los Angeles County. It is helpful to understand what arson is before making a determination of whether or not a person is an arsonist.

When a fire department responds to the scene of a fire, they have the responsibility of determining the origin and cause of the fire because every fire is a potential crime scene.

After investigating the fire, only one of three causes can be declared:

1. Incendiary
An incendiary fire is a fire which was deliberately set, that is, the intent of the firesetter was to intentionally cause harm or property loss. This is commonly referred to as an arson fire and the firesetter is commonly referred to as an arsonist. This is a crime in all 50 states.

2. Accidental
An accidental fire causes harm or loss but it was not the intent of the firesetter to cause the fire and, hence, the harm or loss. This is NOT an arson fire and the firesetter is NOT referred to as an arsonist. This is not a crime. The firesetter may be held responsible for the harmful effects of the fire, but is not prosecutable as a criminal.

3. Undetermined
If it is not possible to determine the cause of the fire, then it is listed as undetermined. This simply means that the fire investigation failed to show the cause for the fire.

In the case of the Los Angeles investigation, the child in question is only 12 years old. It has been suggested by some that the child was playing with matches and, if this is true, it would appear that the cause of the fire was accidental, not incendiary, because it was not the intent of the child to purposefully cause harm or loss. Under these circumstances the child is not an arsonist and has not committed a crime. To be sure, the child's parents or guardians may be held responsible for the effects of the fire, but not the child.

Parents should be aware that juvenile firesetting can sometimes be a problem beyond just mischievous acts by kids. However, firesetting by children differs in some fundamental ways from adult firesetting. Understanding some of the factors which underlie juvenile firesetting can help prevent firesetting behavior from becoming established and may stop more serious fires from being lit as the child grows up. Many children play with fire to some extent and most fires started by children are accidents resulting from fireplay or experimentation. A small group of children engage in problematic firesetting and a few go on to light fires regularly. Child problem firesetters are typically characterized by deeply troubled family backgrounds, often involving family breakdown where one or more parents are absent, distant or hostile. Many children who engage in firesetting have been emotionally and physically abused or neglected. Many have been sexually abused. Abusive and troubled backgrounds can lead to problems with schooling, difficulties with peer relationships and a range of antisocial behaviors, including firesetting.

Most larger fire departments have intervention programs for these child problem firesetters. Early intervention is important to resolution of the firesetting issues with these juvenile firesetters.

Steven W. Edwards, Captain
Ingalls (OK) Fire Department
Member, Dr. Phil Advisory Board

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