Monday, July 13, 2009

Thinking about the fire & Nephew

My thoughts keep drifting back to the fire that my nephew set. I get burning his dad's things. Makes perfect sense. Setting fire to some of his things, going to bed and pretending to sleep while waiting for the fire alarm to go off is much more difficult to understand. Did he have a rescue fantasy? Did he, I don't know, just want to get caught?

I suddenly remembered that Sis said BIL was due to come home for a couple of weeks sometime soon. That Nephew would escalate now makes perfect sense. At some level it is a scream for help. "MY DAD IS COMING BACK. SOMEONE HELP ME." I get that. I want to believe that if he had continued with his counseling this would not have happened. He might have been able to tell his therapist that he was afraid of his dad coming back and that he was burning his dad's stuff and thinking about setting a bigger fire.

Anyway, I read a long handbook (well, skimmed some parts of it) about Juvenile Firesetter Intervention. I also looked at the web pages for his state and town. It is giving me a better idea of what the process is.

They have had an initial interview with a fire marshal which has determined that a juvenile is responsible for the fire. So a fire marshal from the Juvenile Intervention program has conducted longer interviews with Nephew and Sis. They have learned that he has set many fires in the past, has experimented with accelerants, has done so in order to destroy his father's property (i.e. he hasn't just been curious and experimenting). One reason this particular fire is troubling is that he made no attempt to put it out or get help, or even supervise it to ensure it did not get out of control. He went to bed and pretended to be asleep. It is not clear what he imagined was going to happen. Did he have a fantasy about rescuing them? Did he intend to kill them all? There is no evidence of this, at least not so far. Or did he just imagine that this time people would see without having a clear thought about what exactly would happen? Though I am curious about his intent because I want to understand it, the fire marshal will be interested in intent because it makes a difference in how they respond. If he had "criminal intent" then it is arson.

It is clear that this is related to the expectation that his father was going to be home in a month or so to spend a couple of weeks with the family. Nephew's fire definitely falls into the "cry for help" category, which doesn't eliminate the possibility that he also had the intent to cause damage to person or property (beyond the couple of items of his dad's that he initially burned).

Anyway, the interviews with the juvenile program person was on Friday. They learned about Nephew's abuse. My sister has been doing her own version of "crying for help" by being totally honest with every physician, therapist, and now fire official about both Nephew's past behaviors and BIL's abuse. It seems to me that she is begging them to tell her that she can't let her husband come home. They also learned about the abuse from the church/school because Sis would not sign the release for them to interview the pastor. Today the fire marshal will probably start attempting to interview other people in Nephew's life. There are not a lot of them, but they will certainly include people from the public school he has attended.

The fire marshal should also file a report with child protection. Given that the abuser is not currently living in the home, I don't know how much they will do. I know my sister would be relieved if they showed up and told her that he can't come back. I doubt that will happen though. I think it is more likely that they will either decide that there is no need for immediate action on their part but that they should keep an eye out for when/if the father comes back. I'm guessing there. I am HOPING that this prompts an investigation of the church/school.

Though Nephew will have to take a fire safety class, no one thinks that will address the issue. The fire marshal has already said that he will have mandated counseling and that Nephew will have to go a full year with no negative reports before he is "in the clear." To me that sounds like there will be involvement from juvenile justice. That could mean a whole range of things. I am hoping we will have a clearer idea sometime this week. I don't expect detention, but I would guess there would be someone who has the role of a probation officer. I know my sister said that there was no way she could go on the vacation to the cottages even if she wanted to. She has to be taking her son to a lot of appointments.

I have been trying to understand this. I don't know how compulsive fire setters are. Is it like cutting? I know that kids who cut don't just stop. When they are under stress they feel the need to cut and cutting makes them feel better. Is my nephew's relationship with fire like that? Will learning in this dramatic way that the fires he set can be dangerous make him back away, or will it make fire-setting more compelling? Does he present a continuing threat to the safety of others? How successful are these intervention programs for kids this old and who have set fires this damaging?

And will anyone tell my sister, or my brother-in-law that he shouldn't come home, or will they just sit back and watch to see what they do?


  1. Anonymous7:46 AM

    This is really horrible, but serial arsonists have been described as being similar to pedophiles. They know their behaviour is damaging, they may feel enormous amounts of guilt, but many are incapable of controlling their impulses. With supervision and therapy they can get better control, but like child sex offenders being regesterd with the police, it seems to work well if the arsonist has a relationship with the local fire authorities who can be aware of the risk of the individual and be able to preempt which areas are at risk.

    I don't think your nephew is anything like the arsonists we talk about. But I'm really glad that his behaviour is being recognised as something that could become a very big problem and that he needs help now. I can't imagine how scary this all is for his whole family, or how he's feeling. I really hope this is a turning point for him and he's able to regain some control and not feel the need to light fires anymore.

    This is a bit of a touchy topic over here at the moment. Some of the fires from that horrible day earlier this year were lit by arsonists. It's hard to deal with that when you're part of a fire fighting organisation.

  2. Anonymous9:38 AM

    That handbook is great. I haven't mentioned this on my blog because I have nothing to talk about there, but the boy we're waiting to hear about now has one firestart in his history that struck both of us as seeming developmentally appropriate if that's even a right way to talk about this. If what we've been told was true and if this ever becomes something we think about more clearly, I'm glad I've got reassurance from this guidebook about it.

    And all of your suppositions about why your nephew would be doing this seem plausible to me. I really hope he gets the help he needs.

  3. What a horrible situation

  4. Not to oversimplify this, but could it be that Nephew knew Dad was coming home and thought perhaps if he burnt up all of Dad's stuff, then Dad would be so mad that he wouldn't come back? Or that he wouldn't have anything to come back to?

    From what I've been taught, serial firestarters are more consumed with the fire than they are with the target, meaning that this sounds more like an issue of the Dad that it does a preoccupation with fire itself.

    My brother once set the backyard on fire (to see what would happen lol), as we grew up seeing piles of leaves burned, and Dad had a burn bucket. We've thrown all kinds of things in there over the years- each other's toys, spray paint cans that say "don't expose to heat" (curiousity sorry), etc. Neither of us has a compulsion for it and outgrew the desire in our teens.

    My guess on him going to bed is probably the same reason my teen daughter stopped up the toilet flushing letters from the banned boyfriend and then went to bed. She didn't want to take responsibility for the overflowing crap in the bathroom floor, realized she had taken it a step too far, and had no reasonable plan to deal with it and wasn't willing or able to take responsibility for her actions, so like a typicaly teen, buried her head in the sand and pretended the problem didn't exist and hoped it went away.

    The fact that this escalated when it did, and what he was burning, leads me to say arson isn't the issue.

    Abuse from his father (or fear of further abuse) is the issue. Period.

  5. I hope you are right Stacie. There is no doubt that the abuse, and fear of more, is the cause of the problem. I still worry that setting a fire and and then leaving it is a warning sign that it has developed to something more. But again, I hope you are right, because it means it will be *relatively* easy to deal with.

    I'm still waiting to hear what response, if any, there is going to be from CPS. I hate that his dad is just hear with, as far as I can tell, just THERE. I want my nephew to be safe.

  6. Out of curiousity (you know how they have "shade-tree mechanics" I think I'm becoming a "shade-tree psychologist" lol), did he have many instances of pyromania while he knew his dad was out of the country?

  7. Yes.

    He has experimented with accelerants and things like fertilizer, AND he has been burning his dad's things. I don't know for how long, but definitely during the time when his dad was gone, maybe before. I don't know if all the burnings were of his dad's stuff.

    This is the kid who fired a .22 past Brian (intention to scare) and held a pellet gun to a teenager girl's head to make her give him a chair.

    He has a lot of deep pain and I hope he will get the help he needs.


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