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Intervention programs to reduce juvenile arson

Media Release

13 June 2007

'Of all of the crimes committed by young people, arson is potentially one of the most devastating', Dr Toni Makkai, Director of the Australian Institute of Criminology, said on the release of 'Juvenile arson intervention programs in Australia', number 335 in the Trends and issues in crime and criminal justice series.

The lighting of fires by children in Australia is a significant problem. About 20 percent of fires in Australia are thought to be started by young people, mostly bush or grass fires. Fires caused by children in NSW resulted in losses of $24 million between 1987 and 1994.

This paper outlines intervention programs for young people who have shown an unhealthy interest in fire. The research was undertaken as part of a project funded by the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre.

Arson intervention programs, conducted in all Australian jurisdictions, by fire services with specially trained fire fighters, are offered to children of all ages, not only those who have been involved in a criminal offence. The programs target children ranging in age from as young as 3-5 years up to 15-18 years of age and are usually carried out in the homes of the young person with the involvement of the parents.

Rather than being a distinct syndrome, fire setting can be part of more generalised patterns of antisocial behaviour and may be symptomatic of deeper problems. Four key factors relating to family life are associated with an increase risk in a juvenile fire setting - poor supervision and monitoring, parental non-involvement, parental pathology and stressful events.

While the programs target fire setting specifically, it is recognised that this may be just one of several forms of antisocial behaviour, any of which might be assisted by the program. The reasons why a juvenile is setting fires must form the basis of the development of an appropriate intervention program. Proper assessment is crucial to intervening effectively with arsonists.

Fire education programs focus on awareness, dangers and fire safety to encourage the child to take responsibility for their fire setting behaviour and to understand the dangers.

The programs are good examples of developmental crime prevention strategies that identify warning signs in young people and seek to prevent problems evolving into criminal behaviour. Investment in evaluation would provide solid evidence of their efficacy and indicate how such programs can be improved.