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Are You Listening Now?: The Million Dollar Cry for Help

By Karla S. Klas, BSN, RN, CCRP

May 14, 2014 Back

What would provoke a teen from a small Midwestern town to purposefully vandalize and set his high school on fire, causing nearly one million dollars in property and collateral damages? Why would a child do such a harmful act? What contributes to this type of destructive behavior? How could he not realize that his poor decision-making would result in incarceration, multiple felony convictions, financial liabilities, and a permanent criminal record that follows him throughout the rest of his life? Perhaps even more importantly, how can communities prevent this type of tragedy from happening in the future?

Although frequently overlooked and minimized by society, youth firesetting (YFS) represents a significant national problem.1,3,5 Latest National Fire Protection Association reports indicate on average there are 56,300 fires from child-“playing” that cause 110 deaths, 880 injuries, and $286 million in property damage each year in the United States (U.S.).3 However, experts agree that these numbers grossly underestimate the true scope of the problem because a national database does not currently exist.1  Sadly, it is often not until extensive losses, catastrophic costs, devastating injuries, or life-changing consequences occur before adults recognize that a child needs help.  Nearly half of all arson arrests in the U.S. involve youth, with an alarming trend of those youth being charged with domestic terrorism when YFS “pranks” and incidents occur on school property.  Not commonly known, in many states children can be sentenced as adults for their firesetting/arson, imprinting them with a permanent criminal record.  A poignant example of this is the story of Sean, a teenager who set fires in his high school and caused nearly one million dollars in damages, incarceration, and legal fees.  Let’s not wait for these “Million Dollar Cries for Help” to happen before we act!  How can we increase awareness and better prepare our communities to realize the importance of addressing YFS behaviors before it’s “too late”?

The first step is simple: listen to youth.

Children often have difficulty verbalizing their feelings, especially when they are struggling to cope. True listening, which accounts for age/developmental levels and nonverbal communication, takes time. A multitude of motivating factors influence YFS behavior, such as environmental (e.g. domestic violence, abuse, chaotic home life), behavioral (e.g. impulsivity, curiosity), cognitive (e.g. conduct disorder, depression, cognitive impairments), social (e.g. bullying, peer pressure, lack of social skills), and developmental (e.g. learning disabilities, physical impairments).  Firesetting, angry outbursts, hyperactivity, disobedience, and other disruptive behaviors can distract us from remembering to focus on the vulnerable child that is behind the chaotic behavior.

Sometimes children use firesetting as a coping mechanism (albeit a very dangerous one!) to self-calm, express feelings, or seek needed attention.  It can be one of several early warning signs that a child is struggling to cope, which also include:  changes in school performance, eating, or sleeping; withdrawal from social activities or friends; anger; irritability; disobedience; smoking cigarettes or marijuana; and use of alcohol or other substances. For a more comprehensive list, refer to: www.traumaburn.org/prevention/seanstory/pdf/SeansStoryMentalBehavHealth.pdf When we ask what can be done to prevent YFS, we absolutely must question whether we have sufficiently prepared adult professionals, parents, coaches, teachers, and other custodial roles to be aware, attuned, and ready to listen to and help youth who might be at risk for fire misuse.

The second step is: building comprehensive community partnerships.

Community collaborations promote YFS prevention via primary prevention (i.e. proactive education that prevents a YFS incident from occurring) and to facilitate secondary prevention (i.e. early identification and appropriate intervention when a YFS incident does occur).  Fostering community partnerships with schools, clubs, service societies, sports, and other youth-focused organizations are successful in YFS prevention because they utilize groups already closely engaged with youth.

Our community approach to YFS prevention and intervention education must include the following basic principles:

  1. Emphasize that youth have individual responsibility and accountability for their behavior
  2. Use positive educational messages
  3. Individualize educational messages to appropriate age and developmental levels
  4. Foster development of skills in good decision-making, effective problem-solving, impulse control, and social interactions
  5. Discuss the short- and long-term legal, social, and financial consequences of fire misuse in simple language
  6. Utilize a supportive, positive approach as the use of “scare tactics” is ineffective, does not teach a child about the correct uses of fire, and may be potentially harmful

Another critical component for successful community-based YFS prevention is collaboration with schools.  A recent national report revealed that half of structure fires on educational (i.e. school) properties are intentionally set.2 Yet pressures on schools to perform and receive “clean” report cards on safety can lead to internal processing of YFS, versus referring to an appropriate YFS intervention program. New research on “zero tolerance” indicates that exclusively punitive responses to incidents in schools do not adequately address the problem behaviors, and may in fact increase them.4 It is our responsibility to help educate school personnel on the importance of applying these new findings to YFS.

YFS is a widespread national issue that can be successfully prevented and addressed through collaborative community partnerships.  Listening to the voices of youth can prevent future “Million Dollar Cries for Help.”  To learn more, visit www.traumaburn.org/prevention/seanstory/about_sean.shtml

About The Author

Karla S. Klas, BSN, RN, CCRP

Karla Klas received a Bachelor of Science in Nursing with a minor in Psychology from Purdue University. Her background includes more than 21 years of experience in caring for burn patients at three different regional burn centers, critical care nursing, clinical research, professional education and training, policy and process improvement, program development, clinical practice advancement, and Level 1 Trauma and Burn Center Verification management. Karla manages the Trauma Burn Center's family-centered prevention programs which focus on mitigating high-risk behaviors to reduce the occurrence of tragic burn and trauma injuries.

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