Non-Journal Articles

Case Study: Finding the Cause of Teen’s Firesetting Leads to Lasting Solutions

By Publication Manager


James*, a 15-year-old African-American male, appeared in juvenile court after allegedly setting a fire that resulted in significant damage to his foster home and being charged with arson. James was ordered to participate in a 45-day firesetting risk assessment at a residential treatment center to inform the court as to current risk for continued firesetting, information regarding the motivation and context for his firesetting, and an opinion as to James’ amenability to rehabilitation and treatment.

James presented for assessment as sullen and withdrawn and was described by staff as “selectively mute.” Initially, he spent the majority of time in his room, did not engage in activities, and rarely spoke, although he was polite and demonstrated strengths in the creative arts when engaged. During initial assessment, providers learned that Brandon School & Residential Treatment Center was James’ 11th out-of-home placement, including two brief residential stays and nine foster home placements. Social Services moved him regularly, sometimes due to his expressed wishes, but more often as a result of external issues in the placement.

Providers originally believed that the fire in James’s foster home was his first, but they soon learned it was one of a sequence of fires set by James that had progressed over time. James disclosed that his firesetting began with several small paper fires in his bedroom, which no one living in the home noticed. He then progressed to setting fires in the bathroom and kitchen. Finally, a fire he set in the entry of his most recent foster home caused noticeable damage to the rug and wall and was obvious upon entering the house.

Leading up to the entryway fire, it is clear James had little engagement with other family members, was largely ignored, and incredibly unhappy in this foster home. Additionally, there was no place for James’ belongings in the extremely cluttered home. James realized his words had little impact when he told his social services worker he did not like the foster home, but he learned that people responded quickly to overt behavior—like firesetting. Feeling neglected and ignored, James found that once his firesetting was discovered, he got the response he was seeking, and was removed from the home.

James’ firesetting assessment results recommended he would benefit from a short-term placement in residential care prior to returning to a foster care environment. Placement would allow for the initiation of individual counseling to identify and practice healthy communication outlets, exploration of pro-social activities to strengthen James’ poor peer relationships, and measures to engage him in planning for his future. It was also recommended that James complete a community-based fire safety education program, perform community service, and write an apology letter to his foster parents. These recommendations were approved by the presiding judge.

James completed all of the conditions of his treatment plan within six months and was discharged to a foster care placement with the future goal of entering an independent living program. He was successful in school and working part-time. James’ story, like so many others, exemplifies that once the context and motivation for firesetting are understood, the path to eliminating the behavior becomes clearer. Although the criminal justice system could have proceeded immediately to prosecution and long-term detention of James, such action may not have addressed the underlying risk factors and motivation for firesetting behavior, thus maintaining his risk for continued firesetting.

*Name and identifying information have been changed to ensure client confidentiality.

About The Author

Publication Manager