Anti-arson project is aimed at young

Signed pact with county seeks to stop curious kids from becoming criminals

November 11, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

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 year.

"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

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