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An Assessment Opportunity in Juvenile Justice

By Elizabeth Maestranzi, LICSW

Dec 3, 2010 Back


There is a staggering number of youth nationally who are known, by arrest or detention, to the juvenile justice system as a direct result of problem firesetting and arson. Once identified, their firesetting behavior may be excused as an irresponsible and childlike act that once reprimanded will cease, or conversely a youth may be unnecessarily remanded to a juvenile detention center.  Intermediate responses can include a court ordered fire safety education class, participation in a court clinic evaluation, or assignment to probation with stipulated conditions. The question remains though-what is the best practice response to firesetting?

In juvenile detention as well as residential treatment centers, admission trends have shown an increased prevalence of diagnostic profiles that include the disruptive behavioral disorders (CD, ODD, ADHD) which have been associated with increased incidence of problem firesetting.  Significant evidence is mounting that firesetting and the presence of a more severe form of conduct disorder are strongly related. [1][2] According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (ODJJP, 2008) 48% of all arson arrests were of minors, and conduct disorder is one of the most frequently diagnosed psychological disorders with rates of the disorder ranging from 6-16% in males and 2-9% in females.[3] As both residential treatment centers and juvenile detention centers see youth presenting with firesetting behavior histories, significant conduct problems, and mental illness, they each have the opportunity to complete thorough and specialized psychological and behavioral assessments to address critical problem areas.

Practitioners from juvenile justice and residential treatment would agree that assessment is vital to determining a juvenile’s needs as well as the level of risk they may present to themselves and/or the community.[4] Despite this awareness, few mental health professionals in juvenile justice facilities or residential treatment centers have the training and knowledge to complete a comprehensive firesetting behavior evaluation.  In fact, several authors have noted that risk judgments are involved in almost all stages of the processing of youthful offenders, but that most often these risk levels are based on unsystematic and intuitive procedures of questionable validity. With many youthful offenders being held in juvenile detention as a direct result of their arson charges, and with a high value placed on risk determination in this field, placement and community safety decisions are typically occurring at a detention assessment center.  Instead of a one-size fits all assessment, it seems prudent to train mental health professionals in these facilities to conduct specialized firesetting behavior assessments to facilitate appropriate decision making.[5]

Brandon Residential Treatment Center in Natick, MA has developed a comprehensive, 45-day, firesetting evaluation protocol, the Rapid Firesetting Assessment (RFA) that could seemingly be replicated in a juvenile detention assessment center for the purposes of placement and service decision making.   Key features of the RFA  include:

  • Specially-trained assessment team made up of a clinician, case manager, psychiatrist, supervising psychologist, residential and educational staff.
  • Protocol that guides information gathering from multiple collaterals regarding firesetting, behavioral history, and social-emotional functioning.
  • Formal evaluation data that is supplemented by milieu observation data.
  • Incorporation of standardized measures focusing on feelings, behaviors, personality structure, family dynamics, etc.Three week assessment team review meeting to review current information, formulate initial hypotheses and identify remaining questions.
  • Comprehensive report generated which includes a risk determination, placement recommendations, and treatment suggestions.

There are a multitude of benefits to the implementation of a similar model for specialized firesetting behavior assessments in juvenile detention centers.  The RFA model directly addresses the firesetting/arson behavior while also providing a comprehensive understanding of the entire juvenile and his/her family. With mental health professionals already conducting assessments this is simply adding a piece of specialized training to their repertoire.  Using this type of evidence based practice supports practitioners’ ability to present a risk determination to the courts with increased confidence.  Challenges may exist, especially in the training and implementation of such an assessment on a large scale, however, with the recognition of the need and benefits of a standardized assessment by mental health leaders in juvenile justice, it is possible.   There is an opportunity to incorporate a specialized firesetting assessment that would be invaluable to court proceedings and treatment planning for juveniles’ charged with arson.

[1] Kolko, D. & Kazdin, A. (1991).  Motives of childhood firesetters: firesetting characteristics and psychological correlates. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 32(3), 535-550.

[2] Repo, E. & Virkkunen, M. (1997). Young arsonists: history of conduct disorder, psychiatric diagnoses, and criminal recidivism. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry. 8(4), 311-320.

[3] Stickle, T. & Blechman, E. (2002). Aggression and fire: antisocial behavior in firesetting and nonfiresetting juvenile offenders. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment. 24 (3), 177-193.

[4] Hoge, R. D., & Andrews, D. A. (1996). Assessing the Youthful Offender: Issues and techniques. New York: Plenum Publishing

[5] Hussey,D., ; Drinkard, A., Falletta, M. & Flannery, D. (2008). Understanding clinical complexity in delinquent youth: comorbidities, service utilization, cost, and outcomes Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 40(1), 85-95.

About The Author

Elizabeth Maestranzi, LICSW

Elizabeth Maestranzi, LICSW, a licensed independent social worker, has worked at Brandon Residential Treatment Center for the last 9 years. Initially working with boys in the Sexual Behaviors Program, her graduate school training focused on cognitive behavioral therapy and upon returning to Brandon full time she began working in the Intensive Firesetting Treatment Program and the Rapid Firesetting Assessment Programs. She currently co-leads the adolescent fire treatment group and has been working alongside Dr. Robert Stadolnik and Lt. John Egan for the past two years on a research protocol looking at the effects of internet, television and video games on firesetting.