The increase in juvenile crime related arson is particularly troubling. One theory suggest that undiagnosed and untreated conduct disorder in early childhood may be the progenitors in the creation of an arsonist:
From a diagnostic perspective, firesetting is a strong predictor of the continuation of conduct disorder and, in field trials, was found to be the fourth most discriminating behavior for this diagnosis among 14 diagnostic criteria, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. On clinical measures, psychiatrically referred firesetters have been found to exhibit more pronounced delinquent and hyperactive behaviors more extreme externalizing symptoms (e.g., aggression) associated with conduct disorder, fewer internalizing symptoms and less social skill than their nonfiresetting peers, although some studies have not reported differences in aggression or general psychopathology (Kolko 191)
However, it has been noted that many children who have started fires do not always show any signs of significant disturbance or other emotional trauma. Often they have simply been motivated by curiosity. Several studies have indicated that in crimes involving young children less than twelve years of age, more than sixty percent of these have been found to only have been experimenting with fire (Grolnick, Cole, Laurenitis, and Schwartzman). In light of this information several initiatives have been engaged to correct these early childhood interest in firesetting.
Fire safety education (FSE) and cognitive-behavioral treatment (CBT) are perhaps the most common approaches to intervention with firesetting children and their families (Kolko, 2002a). FSE generally seeks to address the child's experience with, exposure to, and interest in fire, through instruction and practice in safety skills (e.g., Pinsonneault, 2002). In contrast, CBT frequently involves targeting individual forms of behavioral dysfunction and environmental conditions by enhancing prosocial skills and parent -- child relationships (Kolko, Herschell, and Scharf)
Early intervention is certainly one of the keys to prevention. Left untreated, these curious children may develop conduct disorder habits that will lead them to experiment further with the tool of fire.
In adolescence these firesetters have set down behavior patterns that are much more complex to discern no less deconstruct. By this time the adolescent arsonist uses fire as a means to express misdirected anger and boredom leading from a lack of emotional impulse control and receiving the wrong attention when younger in regards to the firesetting activity. In this group different issues, both psychological and even biological, may need to be addressed regarding intervention (Lambie, Mccardle, and Coleman). While debatable, the serial arsonist and his or her anti-social traits may stem from traumatic a childhood:
When we examine youngsters who have been truants or who have been in trouble with the police for thefts or disorderly conduct, we frequently find an intimate relationship between their antisocial or criminal manifestations and their emotional and mental conflicts. We also find this intimate relationship in the neurotic person who commits a crime because of unconscious guilt feelings which make him crave punishment. The criminogenic factors in arson and kleptomania too are undoubtedly allied to the emotional or mental abnormality of the offender, having their roots in the sensation of a thrill, which is sexual in nature. (Abrahamsen 109)
However, the psychopathology of an adult arson usually includes an unstable childhood and often severe psychological disturbances. These certainly can be the precursors of many different posttraumatic maladies including conduct disorder and anti-social personality disorder. In a child who has discovered firesetting as one way to express himself or herself, the adult seeking revenge can be a dangerous criminal, seeking retribution for either real or imagined wrongs (Prins, Offenders).
The first steps in categorizing a fire as arson are often compromised by fire officials and law enforcement units that have not been professionally trained in detecting arson. These units may mistakenly rule that a fire is not caused by arson, while a trained investigator may spot evidence even in the worst of crime scenes. More and more local police and even volunteer fire companies are being trained in detecting arson. The first key issues to be determined are the following:
Evidence of incendiarism, as developed and identified by the expert investigator, generally includes one or more of the following: absence of all accidental fire causes, otherwise unexplained presence of a flammable liquid accelerant, presence of incendiary or delayed-ignition devices, presence of incendiary trailers and boosters, existence of multiple origins. (Krzeszowski)
After suspicion has been developed that arson may be the cause of the fire, several other avenues are pursued. Further investigation of the scene may show that if gasoline was used as an accelerant there may be tell tale signs of "puddling" on the floor of the structure leaving a characteristic char pattern, which is unlike any to be found in an accidental fire setting. There also may be dripping patterns visible through floorboards where an accelerant has trickled down through them as it burns. Furthermore, forensic laboratories can analyze a fire scene's remnants to determine if there is a high level of accelerants in the surrounding structure and whether or not some type of delayed delivery device was use, such as a timer of other mechanism.
Once an incendiary fire cause has been established, the follow-up investigation must be initiated to identify the responsible party. In doing so, the investigator seeks to determine whether the insured was the perpetrator or victim. " (Krzeszowski) Investigators of arson not only look for the basic characteristic of a crime, means motive and opportunity, but also for a fourth element involving the victim/suspect, which is anticipation. For instance, if the owner of an office building or other property suddenly decided to remove any personal belongings, important files, cash on the premises, or any household pets just prior to a fire occurring, this may indicate advance knowledge available only the to perpetrator of the crime. This is often an excellent indicator when investigating someone for arson.
Fire is one of the few phenomena that can connote life, as the giver of warmth and energy, as well as death, in its role of the destroyer of both life and property. As with any potential weapon, it is only as safe as its keepers are sound. The universal fascination with fire may be an area that is not completely explored when dealing with those who use it for destructive, improper and unlawful purposes. (Prins) it may certainly behoove profilers and psychologist to further explore the more elemental aspects of the elemental human relationship with fire when dealing with these particular individuals.
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Kolko, David J. "Aggression and Psychopathology in Matchplaying and Firesetting Children: a Replication and Extension." Journal of Clinical Child Psychology 20.2 (1991): 191-201.
Kolko, David J., Amy D. Herschell, and Deborah M. Scharf. "Education and Treatment for Boys Who Set Fires: Specificity, Moderators, and Predictors of Recidivism." Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders 14.4 (2006): 227+.
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Lambie, Ian, Shane Mccardle, and Ray Coleman. "Where There's Smoke There's Fire: Firesetting Behaviour in Children and Adolescents." New Zealand Journal of Psychology 31.2 (2002): 73+.
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