Striving to put out child blazes; Parley targets youth fire-setting.
NATICK - "May" was wearing flip-flops, a UConn basketball jersey, jeans, and had a red bandana tied around her head. Shifting nervously in her chair with an occasional giggle, she sort of told Scott Yeomans, a fire inspector and intervention specialist, what led to her burning down the house - and the death of her beloved dog, her only friend.
"May" was angry at her mother that night because the mother chose to go out drinking with her boyfriend rather than help her daughter with homework. "May" told Mr. Yeomans she decided to light the homework on fire because she remembered that her mother likes to light candles. She described being bullied at school because she was in the special education classroom, how she liked to draw and take photographs, play basketball, and that when she gets bored, she does "bad things" such as tearing up paper.
Mr. Yeomans knew beforehand only that "May," although 15, was functionally at age 9, and had started a fire in a closet at her house that burned for a half-hour, killing the dog, and that she had been angry at her mother.
During the interview, he did not push the fire-setting issue. He listened, asked a few questions, and told "May" he would be back next week.
A few minutes later, "May" re-emerged as social worker Ann Adams, once again dressed as an adult.
The role-playing exercise between Mr. Yeomans and Ms. Adams, who works for the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, was part of the fifth annual Northeast Juvenile Firesetting Conference yesterday, sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services, Natick-based Brandon School, a residential
center specializing in the treatment of children who set fires and have other behavioral problems; the Massachusetts Property Insurance Underwriting Association, and the Massachusetts Association of Safety and Fire Educators.
More than 200 experts from 11 states and Canada convened at the Crowne Plaza Hotel for the two-day seminar.
According to the state fire services department, child and youth-set fires result in more than 110 deaths and nearly 1,000 injuries annually in the U.S. Workshops at the conference, the largest of its kind in the country, examined fire-setting motivations, arson investigation, psychological factors, self-injury, and intervention strategies.
Mr. Yeomans, along with Ms. Adams and Anthony F. Campagna, a Connecticut psychologist, spoke at a session on dealing with fire-setters who have developmental disorders such as Asperger's syndrome, developmental delays, and learning disorders.
Mr. Yeomans, a deputy fire marshal in South Windsor, Conn, told the crowd it is crucial for fire inspectors and police to hone their interviewing skills with youth.
"Sometimes you kind of lose the fact that you're dealing with a kid. We're trying to get people to look at these kids as just kids," he said. "You have to be calm and confident, but professional, and sincere."
Avoiding jargon, be it psychology or legal terms, is important, as is developing a rapport with the child, and staying away from labels such as firebug, pyromaniac, and arsonist.
"The idea is to focus on the child, not their diagnosis or behavior," Mr. Yeomans said.
He pointed out a difference between a juvenile "fire starter" who may just be curious, and a chronic fire setter.
In the role-played interview with "May" Mr. Yeomans said he would have followed up with the teen's art teacher, to try to cultivate that interest, and attempt to deal with grieving and guilt about the dog's death. Mental health intervention is often needed, he said.
"I deliberately did not ask about the dog," he said. "I wanted to get to know her first."
Mr. Campagna questioned if the girl's biological father should be brought up.
Ms. Adams said children who set fires are often products of unhealthy home environments, and may have unstructured or unsupervised lives.
Robert F. Stadolnik, a psychologist from FirePsych, Inc. in Norwood, a practice that specializes in the treatment of youth fire-setters, said while the incidence has not increased, research since the 1980s has determined many more risk factors.
They run the gamut from isolation, loss and sadness to self-injury, vandalism, aggression and abuse.
"It is much more complex, and there are many reasons. We need to keep up with it," he said.