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Hospital Offers Program to Douse Desire of Child Arsonists

February 06, 1986|STEVEN R. CHURM | Times Staff Writer

CERRITOS — Brian liked to set fires.

When he was 4, it was a trash can fire that filled the family apartment with smoke. By age 7, he had set several small school fires. And soon after his 10th birthday, he ignited a major blaze at a mental health clinic, destroying several offices and causing $35,000 damage.

Depression, neglect and lack of self-esteem all fueled his habit, according to doctors at a string of institutions where Brian has lived off and on since he was first hospitalized six years ago.

Returning home from the various treatment centers has not been easy for Brian--or his mother, who admits that it is difficult to trust a firesetter, even your own.

Now 13, Brian is close to going home again, this time from College Hospital, a private psychiatric facility in Cerritos.

Brian was one of the first enrolled in College Hospital's new Firesetters Program, created last fall as a result of a rapid rise in reported juvenile arson.

325% Increase in Arson

Arson has increased 325% nationwide in the last decade, according to the FBI, and more than half of the arrested arsonists are under age 18. Even more disturbing, authorities claim that 1 out every 10 juvenile arsonists is under 10 years of age. Eighty percent of all juvenile firesetters are males, mostly white.

According to his psychologist, Brian is no longer one of those statistics, thanks in part to the Firesetters Program.

Craig Stempf, a Long Beach clinical psychologist, said he believes Brian's fascination with fire has ended because of intense therapy and fire-safety education through books, films, games and visits by firefighters.

"He is more laid back these days," Stempf said, "much more comfortable with who he is and how he fits into society.

"Setting fires was a way to release rage," he said, "to get back at the world, particularly for a youngster who felt powerless to guide his own life or command attention."

Brian, whose mother asked that his real name not be revealed, agreed that the thrill is gone from setting fires.

"That's something I used to do, when I was a kid," he said during a recent interview at Stempf's Long Beach office. For Brian, firesetting no longer holds the "excitement, the charge" it once had, Stempf said.

Brian simply said: "It's boring . . . "

A patient at the 125-bed hospital since last September, Brian is one of eight juveniles receiving special care for firesetting. Another 90 to 100 juveniles, many of them children, are enrolled in the Firesetter program as outpatients.

College Hospital is one of the few inpatient psychiatric facilities in Southern California that admits known juvenile firebugs, according to fire safety experts. Other treatment centers often fear that habitual firesetters will destroy the institution with one strike of a match. Others are reluctant to treat firesetters because of problems with liability insurance and safety complaints from other patients or their parents.

"There is a severe shortage of long-term centers for heavy-duty firesetting kids," said Pam McLaughlin, founder of the San Francisco-based, nonprofit Firehawk Foundation, which teams firesetters with firefighters in an adaptation of the Big Brother idea.

"We get calls from all over the country about where to send these kids," she said. "Frankly, the options are few. Foster homes don't want them. Most government-funded programs don't want them. And sadly, the parents are usually too scared to keep them."

About 1 million arson fires were reported nationwide in 1984, about half of those set by juveniles. In California alone, there were about 50,000 arson fires that year, resulting in more than $160 million in damage, 500 injuries and 21 deaths. Los Angeles fire officials estimate property loss due to arson in 1984 topped $31 million, about half of that caused by juveniles.

"Ten years ago we rarely suspected children when it came to arson," said Capt. Joe Day of the Los Angeles County Fire Department's Fire Education Unit. "Today it is the fastest growing statistic. Arson is so easy for children to commit--and unfortunately so deadly."

Since College Hospital opened in 1972 just west of Cerritos College, hundreds of juveniles, ages 4 to 18, have been treated for a range of emotional or mental health problems. Firesetting was among the ailments, said Robert Myers, director of the hospital's pre-adolescent and children's programs. But the rise in reported juvenile arson convinced Myers and other hospital officials to establish and market a separate program to specifically aid firesetters.

"There is a stigma attached to treating firesetters," said Kent Dunlap, the hospital's chief administrator. "But it is a growing problem and we decided to go public and announce that we are not afraid to confront the issue."

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