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Research on Juvenile Fire-Setters Aims to Understand, Treat Behavior

LAS VEGAS — Fire-setting by children under age 18 is a serious public safety problem, albeit one that's poorly understood. Even small fires set out of curiosity can rapidly grow into blazes that endanger life and property. Arson — a felony — causes 280 deaths, 775 injuries and $593 million in U.S. residential property loss each year, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. And, in 2010, 40.6 percent of persons arrested for arson were juveniles, more than half of them under age 15, the FBI has reported.

Agencies that work with juvenile firebugs can be hard-pressed to determine how much of a safety risk a child is or how to best intervene. Without a system for sharing information with each other, individual agencies have lacked sufficient data to bring science to bear on these questions. But, an effort to create a national database of juvenile fire-setting cases is underway and already yielding important insights, said Ronn Johnson, a psychologist and professor at the University of San Diego at the Annual Meeting of the AAAS Pacific Division.

Johnson, who is also the clinical director of the Juvenile Arson and Explosive Research and Intervention Center at the Burn Institute in San Diego and his students have compiled 1,200 records of juveniles referred to their counseling program over the last two decades, including extensive intake surveys and other information about clients' treatment. The team has stripped out information that identifies the individuals, coded the data numerically so they can be quantitatively analyzed, and will provide this information to the national database being established by the International Association of Fire Fighters.

"We're trying to get some uniformity" on the information agencies collect and enter into this database, said Johnson. "So we can find out what are the trends in terms of fire-setting across the country." He and his colleagues hope to use the database to investigate questions such as how common this behavior is, how fire-setting behavior differs across ethnic, racial, gender and other groups, and how clients respond to counseling and other services.

Ronn Johnson and Patricia Jones [AAAS]

Johnson described this effort at the 94th annual meeting of the AAAS Pacific Division, the oldest of the four AAAS regional divisions. Loosely organized around the theme "desert science," the meeting convened at the University of Nevada Las Vegas 16-19 June and covered a broad range of scientific topics. Several of the symposia and lectures focused on desert, water and climate issues while others explored cancer research, the social sciences, STEM education and more. This year marks the first time the meeting was held in Las Vegas.

As an example of how the emerging national database can support scientific research on juvenile fire-setting, Johnson and his pre-doctoral intern Patricia Jones from the California School of Forensic Studies reported preliminary new findings that may shed light on a once-seminal premise that originated with Sigmund Freud. The psychologist had postulated that arson was a mechanism of gaining control over nature, and that urination, especially night-time bedwetting or "enuresis" represented man's urge to gain control over fire by extinguishing it.

This idea has influenced the beliefs of psychologists, other scientists and the fire service for decades, according to Jones. For example, research in the 1960s and 70s claimed that bedwetting, arson and cruelty to animals formed a triad of factors that predicted an individual's likelihood of committing violence. Other studies, however, have found no evidence for a link between arson and enuresis. After preparing their dataset for the national project, Johnson's team revisited this controversial idea.

Their results appear to bear out the link Freud had described.

Studying parents' reports of bedwetting in intake surveys for 496 juveniles, ages seven to 16, who had been referred to the Burn Institute, the researchers found that bedwetting was more common among these individuals than it was for same-aged children in the general population.

Statistical analysis showed that it's unlikely this increase is due to chance, and the researchers plan to submit their findings to a journal for peer-review. There is an important caveat, however. Most juvenile fire-setters are boys, who are generally slower to stop wetting the bed than girls are. So, Johnson and his team must now determine how much of their results can be explained by this difference alone.

Studying the scientific literature, the researchers also stumbled upon an article reporting that children with enuresis were also more likely to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Other studies have indicated that rates of ADHD, which involves the brain's frontal lobe, are relatively high in their fire-setting clients.

"So, what if bed-wetting and fire-setting are not directly linked, but there's a moderating variable there that has to do with frontal lobe disinhibition?" Jones proposed.

Fire-setters generally fall into four categories. Some are simply curious. Others are responding to some sort of crisis in their lives. A third group suffers from psychologically or neurologically based distress. The fourth show symptoms of a severe pathological condition. Most youth arsonists have a battery of other emotional and neurological problems and are likely to continue setting fires if adults don't intervene in some way.

The Burn Institute's program works with youth, generally referred through the court system, to assess how likely they are to continue to set fires and then to provide education and psychological treatment, as well as referrals for other services. Comparable programs operate in Philadelphia, Denver and Portland.