The word “arsonist” conjures a clear image in our collective cultural imagination: a person whose attraction to fire is so unhealthy, it outweighs their regard for human life and property.
However, the profile of someone who lights fires pathologically is far more complex.
It’s a long-established fact that many adult arsonists developed their unhealthy relationship with fire as a child.
But now a team from Victoria University (VU) have created a tool that could help prevent dangerous fires, by identifying children with fire lighting behaviours that need attention from a mental health professional.
A reaching out to kids who need help
Kara Dadswell, a VU psychology lecturer, has been working in conjunction with the Victorian Juvenile Fire Awareness and Intervention Program (JFAIP), which teaches fire safety awareness principles to children who have engaged in fire lighting behaviour, or are considered to be at risk of doing so.
“They receive referrals from all sorts of places: parents, schools, police, fire brigades … the juvenile justice system,” she says.
The intervention program has proved an effective way to help children who are considered “lower risk”.
“Their fire lighting is more about their curiosity and their naivety than … a psycho-pathological underpinning,” she says.
But the program also attracts children who need more serious professional help.
Ms Dadswell says every child that lights a fire has a complex story, and there’s an array of factors that affect why they’re lighting fires.
“The best we can do … is try and categorise them to some extent. And that’s what we’re trying to do,” she says.
Family and child specific factors often present
In an effort to identify those who might go on to reoffend, Ms Dadswell and her peers designed a questionnaire for the parents of children in the program, asking a broad range of questions about the child, their behaviours and their family life.
About 30 per cent of those studied had children who went on to continue their dangerous fire lighting habits.
The figure compares neatly with previous research, which has consistently found that about 30 per cent of children who enter intervention programs have a more pathological problem, and should be receiving some sort of mental health intervention.
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By examining questionnaire results from the families of children who went on to reoffend, Ms Dadswell’s team came up with a simpler survey tool, to help identify children with a high risk of reoffending.
Those children don’t necessarily have a pathological issue — but the result indicates a “red flag … [for a] higher risk case [that] probably needs some mental health intervention”, Ms Dadswell says.
The research indicates there are three groups of risk factors likely to influence whether a child will reoffend — and a “significant interest and attraction to fire” is only one of them.
Behaviours like hiding ignition sources like lighters and matches, and fascination with fire lighting needn’t set off an alarm bell on their own.
“[But] those in conjunction with some other family and child specific … variables could tip you over into the at risk group,” Ms Dadswell says.
Family specific factors include inappropriate discipline levels within the family (either too much or too little), high levels of family conflict and a history of mental illness in the child’s parents.
And child specific factors can include an attention deficit disorder diagnosis, and antisocial behaviours including “aggression, hostility, carelessness, destroying property, lying, being cruel and violence”.
“You get a bit of a red flag, that maybe this child is at risk of continuing on with this behaviour,” she says.
“Then from there, a mental health professional can actually have a real look at this case.”
‘A bit of fun’ can still devastate
Ms Dadswell is also firm that the tool is only intended to categorise children at risk of having a pathological relationship with fire lighting — but they’re not the only children who start bushfires.
“All fires, regardless of the motive, are dangerous,” she says.
“Young kids and even teenagers lighting fires just because it’s a bit of fun, out of curiosity, could actually cause more damage than a child who’s intentionally trying to start a bushfire that may not take off.”
Regardless of the reasons, Ms Dadswell says seeking help from services like the Victorian Juvenile Fire Awareness and Intervention program is crucial, if your child is displaying fire lighting behaviours.
“Effective early intervention is critical,” she says.
“I think you’d be hard pressed to find an adult arsonist who didn’t start lighting fires when they were children.
“So if they were intervened with early, then maybe it could have been a different outcome.”