Juvenile Fire Setter program, Southbridge, MA
Wednesday, December 24, 2003
Young fire setters find help
Program steps in to stress safety
By John Dignam
Fire Inspector Richard Ciesla, left, and teacher Laurie J. Donleavy work with two children in the Southern Worcester County Juvenile Fire Setters Intervention Program. Whether children are delinquent, curious, or crying for help, children and fire can be a dangerous combination, according to Lt. Ciesla. (T&G Staff / DAN GOULD)
SOUTHBRIDGE- At any time, the blast of the fire horn and the rush of firefighters to their trucks can disrupt this special class for children being held on the second floor of the fire station.
But teacher Laurie J. Dunleavy says it is an appropriate and important disruption, because fire has disrupted the lives of the children in the class and their families.
The Southern Worcester County Juvenile Fire Setters Intervention Program was started seven years ago because of the frustration that Fire Lt. Richard Ciesla, the department's investigator, felt in dealing with children who start fires.
A young boy playing with matches had caused a fire that displaced three families.
"That's what initiated" the program, Lt. Ciesla said. "I had nowhere to turn to get this kid the kind of specialized help he needed. The closest program was in Fall River."
Adapted from the Fall River program to provide smaller classes, the program began here in January 1996 to serve southern Worcester County communities.
Since then, 145 children have taken the intervention class. Only two have later started fires and gone into the Juvenile Court system, according to Ms. Dunleavy.
Ms. Dunleavy, then a Grade 3 teacher at Charlton Street School, became interested in helping juvenile fire setters because of her training in psychology and counseling.
She attended a program on juvenile fire setters in 1995 that Lt. Ciesla organized, and she has taught the program since it began. She has been a behavioral specialist at Charlton Street School the past four years.
The program is for children ages 3 to 16. Children as young as 5 have taken the classes, although most are 8 to 12 years old.
Children over age 7 can face charges in Juvenile Court, and the state Department of Social Services becomes involved if abuse is suspected, according to both Lt. Ciesla and Ms. Dunleavy.
The children come to the program - one class a week for eight weeks - after being referred by parents, teachers, social service and mental health providers or the courts.
Children who are considered pathological fire setters - that is, they have a compulsion to start fires - are beyond the scope of the program and are referred to counseling, she said.
Lt. Ciesla, who interviews the children and families before admitting them to the program, said most of those who deliberately set fires are upset because of instability or problems in their families such as a divorce or death.
A girl that Ms. Dunleavy described as "sweet" set paper towels on fire in a trash can in a school bathroom because she wanted to be noticed.
One boy lighted a can of hair spray in a sink, which he thought would contain it. He did not expect it to explode in flames and set towels on fire.
Ms. Dunleavy estimated 30 percent of the children in the program are considered to be "in crisis," and starting fires is a "cry for help, a way to be recognized."
But most are children who are curious or careless about fire.
The home of one 8-year-old girl burned after she lighted incense in her room, tossed a match she thought was extinguished into a wastebasket, and went to the kitchen to make a sandwich.
Yet whether children are delinquent, curious, or crying for help, children and fire can be a dangerous combination, according to Lt. Ciesla. He said juveniles start half of all structure fires in the United States and half of all arson fires.
According to information provided by the program, fires started by juveniles also are the second-leading cause of severe burns in homes; are the No. 1 crime committed by juveniles; have a clear correlation with sexual abuse; affect children as young as 3 and cross all socioeconomic barriers.
Without intervention, 81 percent of the children will set fires again.
"The old mentality was to take the kids to the fire station and scare the living daylights out of them," Lt. Ciesla said. "That was supposed to take care of the problem. It didn't."
The fire setters program teaches the children basic fire safety prevention, but in more depth than they would receive in school programs. It also teaches the causes, consequences and science of fire, like the fire triangle of oxygen, heat and fuel.
"We teach the role the Fire Department plays in keeping them safe, and when an emergency happens while we are teaching them, they appreciate more what happens when the alarm goes off and how dangerous this can be to firefighters," Ms. Dunleavy said.
The students also are given homework assignments, including creating floor plans of their homes and checking their homes for fire hazards, such as having too many plugs in electrical outlets or the presence of gasoline or paint cans.
In completing the program, the children must understand the difference between good and bad fires, understand first aid for burns and understand and demonstrate escape from fire.
"The program gives them respect for the dangers of the fire and the damage it causes. For example, we show them burns, and some of it is graphic. But we don't treat this as a punishment. It is a learning experience," Ms. Dunleavy said.
Both Ms. Dunleavy and Lt. Ciesla said some of the children have later brought friends or family members to the fire station. One youth took a test to be an emergency medical technician. Another was interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter.
Fire Chief Leonard N. Laporte said the program is one of a number of programs for children provided by the Fire Department.
"This is at a different level than programs in the schools that reinforce the message of safety. This is an extremely important program, and I think it provides a wonderful asset for the children to be able to overcome their desires to play with fire, their fascination with fire," said Chief Laporte.
"One grandmother brought her grandsons to the Fire Department, and they have been going through the program.
"I know this makes the community safer," Chief Laporte said, "and it shows that Southbridge is a forward-thinking community."