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Juvenile Justice: A Key Partner

By Don Porth

Dec 1, 2010 Back

Issue02_FS

Intervention for fire-involved youth is a tricky business. What makes it so is the wide variation in program structure and function from one community to the next. Some programs are based on an education philosophy which lends itself to younger children whose behavior may be intercepted before it evolves into a damaging fire or pattern of behavior. Others may focus on those who have crossed the legal thresholds with fire and are prompted by the laws of a state. Neither philosophy is more correct than the other, but will influence how nor when the fire service and juvenile justice cross paths.

Lisa Van Horn, youth firesetting program manager for Seattle Fire Department has this to say about programs, “It is often up to the fire service program manager to initiate and nurture an agency network that is specific and relevant to the target community.” As readers of MatchBook Journal, you’ve already realized how we support and connect the various disciplines by the very structure of our website and journal. Our goal is to bring these disciplines together through communication to build greater understanding, appreciation, and ultimately working relationships. But no model exists to fit the varied program structures that exist across the United States.

Early intervention may be one of the most critical elements of any intervention program. This is often considered a fire service responsibility. Some communities have found success through support by juvenile justice though. Problem and delinquent behaviors can occur in families as children learn from their siblings. When youth become involved with juvenile justice, their younger siblings also become a greater risk for problem behavior. Early intervention with these younger brothers and sisters (through simple questioning about behavior followed by proper referrals for services) may head-off problems before they have a larger community impact. Van Horn goes on to say, “[Juvenile justice] brings to the table a system of accountability and consequences that can be instrumental in helping effect lasting behavior change, as well as valuable resources for families which are often not easily available through other community channels. Services, such as comprehensive assessments, evidence-based drug treatment and therapy programs, advocacy teams, access to psychological evaluations, mobile therapy services, and therapeutic staff support as well as referral to special community programs which may require funding not easily available through fire service providers.”

Even with the best early intervention efforts, involvement with juvenile justice may still be inevitable for some youth. For this to be productive, bridges must be in place. Niki Periera of Firestoppers of Alaska describes her early experiences with juvenile justice: “Fourteen years ago in Anchorage, Alaska, a question was posed to the local youth detention center by the fire service. The question was “How many of the youth sent through your facility have firesetting in their background?” The response from intake and probation officers was muffled laughter. The consensus was that many of the youth have firesetting in their background. Juvenile justice officers had plenty of anecdotal information to back that up. They just didn’t know what to do about it.” As in many cases where communication is limited, her juvenile justice professionals were happy to know an intervention program existed. This opened a diversion option that had not been seen. While incarceration may be appropriate in some cases, virtually every child in the court system for fire related offenses will leave the system (some quite quickly). Diversion, therefore, becomes a desirable goal to reduce impact on the system and better prepare kids for productive behavior. Periera adds, “Good diversion provides consequences that fit the crime. A youth should be able to somehow connect the consequences with the inappropriate behavior for it to be a meaningful learning experience. Completing community service cleaning toilets in a Boy’s and Girl’s Club, as an example, did not connect the act with the consequences.”

As in all aspects of “intervention strategies,” they tie all intervention disciplines together. The fire service, in the case of diversion, may be a key provider. But mental health may also be brought to the table to help address behavioral needs. Van Horn offers these thoughts on diversion: “Modeling the children’s mental health delivery system, the use of wraparound services is a community-based approach to intervention that emphasizes the strengths of the child and family and involves the delivery of coordinated, individualized services to address the needs and achieve positive outcomes.”

When the day is done, the goal is the greatest impact on the child with the lowest impact possible on the community. A solid working relationship by all disciplines, particularly the fire service and juvenile justice, can create a system of intervention and accountability to change the lives of kids. Periera sums this up nicely by saying, “Studies show that youth involved in meaningful community diversion programs have a lower recidivism rate than youth that end up incarcerated. Youth firesetting programs have come a long way in the past twenty five years. In those communities where firesetting programs work closely with juvenile justice, the benefits are evident.”

Where and When does the Fire Service meet Juvenile Justice?

A major factor in any well-run firesetting intervention program is being able to effectively address the broad range of firesetting behavior that may present itself in a community. Although many of the simpler firesetting behaviors can be addressed from a strong educational and environmental control approach, it is the more complex firesetting behaviors that require a strong multi-agency network to work collectively to provide effective services for the most at-risk youth and their families. Modeling the children’s mental health delivery system, the use of wraparound services is a community-based approach to intervention that emphasizes the strengths of the child and family and involves the delivery of coordinated, individualized services to address the needs and achieve positive outcomes. Providers of wraparound services engage together to assess and plan a treatment process that is characterized by the formation of a child, family and multi-agency team. This collaborative team works to marshal community and natural sources of support for the family through case management and provision of therapeutic interventions such as behavioral support services, crisis planning, parent coaching and education, and medication monitoring.

Components of wraparound services include engagement of the family, strengths and needs assessments, crisis and safety planning, development and implementation of a service plan, and monitoring after transition out of the program. All of this within a flexible framework which both addresses the child and family’s individual needs as well as empowers caregivers with the skills and motivation to support the behavior change within their own family.

While most community firesetting intervention programs are based within a local fire department, and staffed by fire service employees, they are only one piece of the multi-disciplinary team required to address the more complex firesetters. However, it is often up to the fire service program manager to initiate and nurture an agency network that is specific and relevant to the target community. Since the actions of many of these youth have resulted in involvement of the law enforcement and legal systems, it is vital that these agencies be part of any potential response team. They bring to the table a system of accountability and consequences that can be instrumental in helping effect lasting behavior change, as well as valuable resources for families which are often not easily available through other community channels. Services such as comprehensive assessments, evidence-based drug treatment and therapy programs, advocacy teams, access to psychological evaluations, mobile therapy services, and therapeutic staff support as well as referral to special community programs which may require funding not easily available through fire service providers.

In some cases, the one piece that Juvenile Justice may be lacking in order to engage the most appropriate treatment plan for the complex firesetting youth is the fire service provider’s expertise on the serious safety risks associated with the firesetting behavior. By providing that fire safety assessment, using standardized assessment tools, the fire service interventionist can often provide a critical key in identifying a high risk behavior.

About The Author

Don Porth

Don Porth is a member of Portland Oregon Fire & Rescue. He joined the fire service in 1980 as a volunteer and was then hired by the Salem Oregon Fire Department before transferring to Portland. He is currently a youth firesetting interventions specialist and has worked directly with child firesetting behaviors since 1988. His implementation of the youth firesetting information database has made Portland’s program one of the most noted in the nation. Don is a member of the National Fire Protection Association as a steering committee member for addressing the national youth firesetting problem, and past Chair of Oregon Council Against Arson. Don holds a BS in Fire Command Administration from City University. Don represents “SOS FIRES: Youth Intervention Programs.” SOS FIRES is a non-profit advocacy organization for the issue of youth firesetting intervention. SOS FIRES provides training, conducts research and facilitates communication on the issue of youth firesetting behaviors. Founded in 1996, SOS FIRES strives to serve the national needs surrounding youth firesetting behaviors and intervention programs.

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