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Juvenile Arson & Firesetting: Confronting Myth with Effective Dispositions

By Rebecca Porter, BA, Liz Murphy, LICSW and Robert Stadolnik, Ed.D.

May 8, 2013 Back


Juveniles account for over half of all arrests for arson in the United States, and arson arrest rates have risen 9% over the past decade. Recent findings reveal that prevalence rates for firesetting behavior are as high as 35%-55% of juveniles in corrections or treatment facilities, firesetting/arson correlates with a “’high trajectory” and severe form of conduct disorder, and firesetting juveniles are ten times more likely to engage in later criminal behavior. Despite these facts, most juvenile justice professionals remain entrenched in a set of mythological and unsupported beliefs about firesetting. As a result, dispositions by juvenile courts are often decided without full knowledge of the scope and nature of intervention, assessment, and treatment options that are available to the court. This vacuum of knowledge frequently results in juvenile firesetting/arson behavior being over-pathologized, untreated, misinterpreted, or ignored.

This article aims to provide historical context for the continued existence of this set of powerful myths around firesetting, identify commonly held myths about firesetting, provide a framework for disposition options available to the juvenile courts, and identify firesetting intervention resources available to juvenile justice professionals. In order to deliver informed dispositions and effective interventions related to arson and firesetting, it is critical that juvenile justice professionals understand the nature of firesetting behavior and are informed about resources for firesetting juveniles and their families.

“Pyromaniacs” and “Firebugs”?

The earliest known assertion of pyromania, an irresistible impulse to set fires, was contained in an 1838 insanity defense plea in France; throughout the 19th century, pyromania remained part of the legal debate regarding the legitimacy of insanity defenses. The idea that some individuals possess an internally driven and irresistible urge to set fires as a means to relieve sexual tension has been a popular aspect of mental health folklore for nearly 80 years. Since Freud first “conjectured” (i.e., formed an opinion without sufficient evidence) in 1932 that men were drawn to firesetting as part of a latent homosexual urge to extinguish a fire with their urine, problem firesetting has been unjustifiably linked with sexual impulses, bedwetting, and other pathologies.1 In fact, as late as 1979, arson investigators were instructed to escort arson suspects into a bathroom because the ability to urinate in front of others was regarded as a sign of innocence. Freud’s theoretical idea was never the subject of controlled experimental research and has rarely been supported in subsequent research on adult firesetting populations.

A strong consensus exists among researchers and experienced professionals that the DSM-IV disorder of pyromania, described as a pattern of deliberate setting of fires for pleasure or satisfaction derived from the relief of tension experienced before the fire, is of questionable value and validity. Forensic psychologist Dr. Kenneth Fineman probably said it best: “The model that all firesetters are sexually repressed or obsessed, active or latent homosexual, enuretic, cruel to animals, and of subnormal intelligence must give way to a model that more accurately reflects the literature as well as the clinical impressions of those clinicians and fire service professionals who frequently evaluate firesetters.” 2 Fineman’s critique indicates that there is little support for assigning the diagnosis of pyromania, even to very disturbed and concerning adults; when dealing with juveniles, terms like “pyromaniac” and “firebug” have no place in our courtrooms, court clinics, or probation offices.

Top 10 Juvenile Firesetting Myths

Due to a lack of credible, research-based knowledge, a number of enduring, erroneous beliefs about juveniles involved in firesetting have developed over the years and directly impact treatment decisions as well as dispositions in the courtroom. These myths include:

1. Juveniles who set fires are “pyromaniacs.”

Although pyromania continues to be listed in the DSM-IV, its criteria apply fully to a very small percentage of juveniles and adults who have set fires. Research suggests that less than .01% qualify for the diagnosis, as its hallmarks include a description of firesetting as an irresistible and uncontrollable urge with the sole purpose of experiencing some internal relief of tension. Although it is common and convenient to label individuals with this behavior, the term “pyromania” does little to describe all of the varied motivations for which fires are set.

2. Firesetting is a predictive indicator of a sexual abuse history.

There is no evidence that rates of sexual abuse victimization among boys and girls who set fires are higher than the rates among the total population of juveniles who engage in any type of delinquent behavior. Among detained youth, approximately 20%-30% of boys and 65%-70% of girls are victims of sexual abuse, and research suggests the same percentages among juveniles who have set fires.

3. Setting fires is sexually arousing.

Despite Freud’s early attempts to link firesetting to human sexuality and arousal, there is no significant evidence to support this notion.

4. Firesetting is an isolated and infrequent behavior.

This idea was widely believed before mental health practitioners began asking juveniles in counseling whether they had ever set a fire, and before fire service personnel began collecting data on the prevalence of juvenile-set fires. Research shows that firesetting is a national problem. School property lost to juvenile-set fires each year amounts to more than $200 million from middle and high schools alone. Additionally, approximately one-third of children admitted into burn units are injured as the result of a fire they or another juvenile set. Studies of outpatient mental health populations indicate 25% of children have histories of setting fires; the number increases to more than 50% of juveniles in detention or residential treatment settings.

5. Firesetting is a definitive indicator of serious disturbance or violence.

All types of kids set fires or play with fire—some are very disturbed and some are not very concerning at all. Some youth may set a fire due to curiosity. Other juveniles may not have developed the ability to self-soothe or discharge negative emotions, and firesetting may be their way of releasing anger or calming themselves. Another subset of individuals sets fires as a way of experiencing (a false sense of) control over something, or to establish themselves as competent at something among peers. Because of the vast number of possible motivations, firesetting should not be assumed to indicate a serious disturbance. With such a range of characteristics and risk factors, each juvenile requires an individual response crafted to fit his or her needs.

6. Big fires = big problems.

Because all fires start with a single match or lighter, the size or the amount of damage caused does not convey anything about the individual who set the fire to an evaluator, nor does a fire’s size or wrath reveal the juvenile’s treatment needs. Some very disturbed and dangerous juveniles repeatedly set small fires that cause no damage, while a fire resulting in millions of dollars in damage or serious injuries or fatalities may have been the first fire of an experimenting juvenile. It is common for a large fire or a fire causing injury to result in heightened concern for public safety and lead to false conclusions about youth who set the fire. Truly important factors that aid in determining a level of risk and the most appropriate interventions are the characteristics of the child, his or her environment, and the motivation for setting the fire.

7. Only boys set fires.

Firesetting was long believed to be a behavior that only boys engaged in; girls were rarely asked about the behavior or studied by researchers. Recently it has been determined that, like other delinquent behaviors, the number of girls engaging in firesetting is on the rise. Among adolescents, 20%-25% of fires are set by females, and research indicates girls are more likely to set a fire in a school building.3 The reason for the rise in overall female delinquency is not known, but one theory points to girls being socialized to be more aggressive and engage in more high-risk behaviors.

8. Typical profiles for firesetting youth exist.

There is no such thing as a “firesetter”—this label implies that a set of consistent criteria exists among individuals who set fires. Juveniles with histories of firesetting come from rural communities and cities, from all socioeconomic backgrounds, every ethnicity, and have a large range of cognitive abilities. No typology exists that defines or categorizes youth who have set fires.

9. Juveniles who set fires are difficult to understand.

Juveniles set fires for many understandable reasons; it is a behavior that serves some function for them. Reasons for firesetting may be to satisfy curiosity, to establish clout among delinquent friends, to communicate an unmet need, or to discharge negative emotions. Families and interventionists may not like the reasons juveniles set fires, but the motivation for a juvenile’s firesetting can almost always be determined. By exploring motivations through an assessment, recommendations can be made for the course of treatment. Research finds that when the firesetting behavior is targeted, recidivism rates are low.

10. Firesetting is difficult to treat

Firesetting is not hard to treat—many of the same interventions used for other behavior problems have been effectively applied to firesetting. Cognitive behavioral therapy, anger reduction groups, social skills training, community service, and restitution opportunities have all been found to be successful. Fire safety education, typically offered at no cost through local fire departments, has also been shown to have high success in reducing firesetting recidivism. Many of these interventions are readily available in every community—they just need to be identified and utilized for treating firesetting.

Judicial Disposition Options: A Four Tier Model

Firesetting/arson behaviors are associated with later criminal behavior and have also been associated with a more severe form of conduct disorder.4 Because of this relationship, interventions—including community service, diversion services, and mental health referrals—should target the individual and the circumstances associated with his or her firesetting and general functioning. When fire-specific interventions are received, community-based programs show that recidivism decreases from 58% to between .07% and 16.7%. Mental health program data show recidivism rates of 1.5%-7% for juveniles receiving intervention.5

Erroneous notions and beliefs held by professionals from various disciplines have led to ineffective probation or courtroom dispositions and interventions, such as visits to a burn center, fire station visits, and “scared straight” tactics. Too often overlooked are readily available, research-based interventions shown to decrease recidivism including formal fire safety education, cognitive behavioral therapy, parent management training, and anger management work. A range of effective intervention resources, including models for detention-based firesetting risk assessments, are available to juvenile justice professionals in virtually all areas of the country. Courts can use these tools to deliver dispositions that will result in appropriate, targeted interventions leading to lowered risk to engage in future firesetting/arson and improved community safety.

Juvenile court judges are encouraged to adopt a four tier response model for appropriate courtroom disposition when concerns about firesetting are present (See page 13). The first tier response is a referral to a community based juvenile firesetting intervention program, typically coordinated through a fire service agency, which provides formalized screening, referral to additional services if needed, and curriculum-based fire safety education. This response is considered appropriate for juveniles who present as first-time offenders, display minimal risk indicators, and have adequate resources in their family and/or community to support participation in these outpatient services. Local and state resources can be located with the assistance of two national websites devoted to juvenile firesetting intervention(;

The second tier response is to order the completion of a comprehensive firesetting behavior evaluation by a court clinician or community-based mental health provider to inform the court as to the level of risk for continued firesetting and the presence of risk factors requiring intervention. This response is considered appropriate for juveniles presenting with mental health concerns or significant risk factors. The juvenile may be a repeat offender, but is considered stable enough to safely remain in the community and/or to cooperate with outpatient services.

The third tier response available to the courts is to order a detention facility-based or residential treatment facility-based assessment of firesetting and any associated risk factors (aggression, substance abuse, etc). This option provides a level of stability and security when the juvenile presents as unstable, multi-risk, or is a chronic offender. These more comprehensive assessments can provide the court with specific recommendations related to intervention needs, factors associated with increased recidivism risk, and risk for continued firesetting in the community.6

The fourth tier disposition option is to order placement into a staff secure residential treatment center that specifically addresses problem firesetting prior to return to the community. This recommendation is typically made based upon the findings of an assessment completed and presented to the court. Placement is made into a facility that can specifically target the firesetting and associated risk factors.

With more reliable information on the circumstances and characteristics of juveniles who are involved in firesetting/arson and access to intervention resources and partners, juvenile court judges will be better able to craft disposition options that meet the goals of protecting public safety and promoting rehabilitation.

 [1] Freud, S. (1932). The acquisition of power over fire. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 13, 405-410.

[2]Fineman, K. (1995). A model for the qualitative analysis of child and adult fire deviant behavior. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 13(1), 31-60, at 33.

[3] Manela, T. & Stadolnik, R. (2010). Is she Cinderella or the wicked witch? An exploratory study of adolescent female firesetting. Hot Issues, 3, 2-4.

[4] Repo, E., & Virkunnen, M. (1997). Young arsonists: History of conduct disorder, psychiatry diagnosis and criminal recidivism. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry, 8(4), 311-320.

[5] Murphy, L., & Stadolnik, R. (2011). Juvenile firesetting/arson: A review of disposition options. Workshop presented at 74th Annual Conference of National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, July 24-27, 2011, New York, N.Y.

[6] Murphy, L. (2011). An assessment opportunity in juvenile justice. Matchbook, 2, 20-21.

About The Author

Rebecca Porter, BA, Liz Murphy, LICSW and Robert Stadolnik, Ed.D.

Rebecca organizes the admissions process for Brandon's day school, residential, group home and specialty programs. She also takes an active role in the Northeast Juvenile Firesetting Conference planning committee, as well Brandon's marketing and grant-writing team. Impressed by Brandon's unique ability to shape treatment to suit each child and family's needs, she is proud to be part of the Brandon Team for nearly 10 years. Rebecca received a BA from Wittenberg University and a Graduate Certificate in Human Services Management from Suffolk University / MCHSP.

Elizabeth has worked at Brandon Residential Treatment Center for the last 9 years. Initially working with boys in the Sexual Behaviors Program, 10 years ago 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.

Dr. Robert Stadolnik, a licensed psychologist, is President of FirePsych, Inc., and author of the book Drawn to the Flame: Assessment and Treatment of Juvenile Firesetting. He recently completed research studies on specialized firesetting populations including adolescents in residential care and adolescent females. Dr. Stadolnik consults to fire safety programs, residential treatment centers, public school systems, and state child welfare agencies. Over the past fifteen years he has completed or supervised over 1,000 firesetting behavior assessments and provides training and workshops on a national level.