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Forensic Assessment and Clinical Intervention for Juvenile Fire Setters: The San Diego Model

By Ronn Johnson, Ph.D.

Dec 3, 2010 Back


The San Diego Model for juvenile fire setters (JFS) is better known as “FATJAM.” FATJAM refers to the “Forensic Assessment & Therapeutic Jurisprudence Assistance Model.” FATJAM is a risk oriented skills-based juvenile fire setter and bomb maker mental health intervention program offered through a partnership between the Burn Institute and the University of San Diego’s clinical mental health (CMHC) specialization. Dittmann (2004) recommends that service providers such as the Burn Institute (BI) partner with mental health professionals because they know what can happen when youth are involved in fire-related behavior.  FATJAM is a specialized area within forensic psychology referred to as, “Therapeutic Jurisprudence.” As a fire and police response extension, therapeutic jurisprudence may be of great support as implemented through the aforementioned partnership.

Therapeutic jurisprudence in this partnership includes an extension of existing JFS support services. These services promote an acute awareness of the complex psychological, cultural-social processes, and judicial issues that accompany the aspects of fire setters and police responses. The USD-CMHC Burn Institute Partnership program involves USD clinical mental health advanced students, who deliver a wide range of psychotherapeutic services tailored to the forensic context of the referrals. The training for USD students is consistent with the standards of CACREP CMHC courses. All mental health-related services are provided under the direct supervision of a licensed and board certified clinical psychologist. The USD-CMHC Burn Institute Partnership has three primary objectives.

Objective #1

The USD CMHC students complete comprehensive clinical instruction-related courses for JFS that are consistent with CACREP (2009) CMHC guidelines and state LPCC standards. In this case, these courses include assessment, group counseling theory-based interventions as opposed to group dynamics, counseling theory (CBT), family counseling, cultural and gender-based factors (i.e., males). A review of the syllabi of these courses reveal experiences that are particularly relevant for students in clinical mental health training as they pursue licensure.

Objective #2

Public safety personnel complete an orientation session designed to increase their understanding of FATJAM. These sessions also allow a give-and-take exchange required for planning, as well as scheduling needs. Some mental health professionals find the most effective means of providing such treatment and education is through direct work with fire departments and community agencies. The same principle would apply to other types of youth offender behavior.

Objective #3

The clinical mental health features of FATJAM are strategically integrated into the existing Burn Institute psycho-educational fire setter program. FATJAM uses a fire setter intervention program crafted to intervene with and reduce recidivism among a subset of the youth population that includes 4-to 18-year-olds, who are estimated to set 40 to 60 percent of the reported fires. This element of FATJAM works with youth, families, and treats clients with respect, dignity, courtesy, and cultural responsiveness while working to deliver the program. This program is an option for the juvenile court system to use to divert cases to an alternative mental health system. Even though there is no profile of the so-called typical offender in these cases, there are mental health factors that are especially relevant for fire setters (Kolko, 2002).

Summary of the program elements of FATJAM include:

  • Clear theoretical model of change outlined in the FATJAM Manual and based in the theoretical and empirical literatureClear criteria for selection of participants in FATAM (inclusion and exclusion criteria)
  • Participant screening assessments identified
  • Target a range of dynamic risk factors associated with re-offending
  • Measurement of any changes that occur in risk factors
  • Interventions used are supported by evidence of the efficacy with the juvenile fire setters
  • FATJAM provides juvenile fire setters with skills and strategies to avoid antisocial behaviors
  • Treatment is structured but may be adjusted to match the offenders in terms of fire setter needs and types of treatment sessions.
  • FATJAM aims to actively engage and motivate fire setters throughout the program.
  • Monitoring of attendance and completion rates, along identification of reasons for non-completion.
  • Coherent planning process between BI & USD with a plan for connection with the juvenile justice system
  • Program Integrity is monitored to ensure that the intervention is being run as crafted (e.g., supportive feedback to staff)
  • Ongoing evaluation examining effectiveness, in term of changes on targeted dynamic risk factors and re-offending

CACREP (2009) CACREP standards 2009
Dittman, M. (2004) APA Monitor, Vol. 35, No. 7, July/August
Kolko, D. J. (2002). Handbook on fire setting in children and youth. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

About The Author

Ronn Johnson, Ph.D.

Ronn Johnson, Ph.D., Associate Professor at University of San Diego, is a licensed and board certified psychologist with extensive experience in academic and clinical settings. He has served as a staff psychologist in community mental health clinics, hospitals, schools and university counseling centers. Dr. Johnson’s recent publications include: “Clinical Assessment of Ethic Minority Children Using the DSM-IV-TR,” Psychologist’s Desk Reference; “Subtest Factor Structure of the Preschool Behavior Questionnaire in an African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic Preschool Population,” Psychological Reports.