Juvenile Arson Suspects Require Different Approach by Investigators
Little has been published on juvenile arsonists, although volumes appear constantly on the problem of delinquents. In dealing with children, the emphasis should be on preventing arson, channeling youthful energies toward constructive outlets and correcting criminal tendencies.
A child is not as free from restrictions as an adult, regardless of how lax his parents or guardians may be in their supervision. Consequently, fires set by juveniles usually occur in the daytime. Children are active and free during the daytime, sometimes bored and sometimes more adventuresome than the law allows. Rarely do they set fires at night. Children’s activities can be spotted to some extent by the time of day and season.
They give the arson investigator more headaches and problems during the summer months when they are out of school than during the school year. Juvenile fires in school buildings, however, usually occur during school hours or shortly before and after school hours.
Juveniles bungle fires
When a fire that has earmarks of having been set by a juvenile occurs during school hours, it is well to check the school rolls for absentees. Some truant may have been up to mischief.
Fires set by juveniles lack the skill and professional touch of adults. Children’s methods are fairly simple, even bungling at times. They often make several attempts before achieving their purpose. Scratch marks, where matches were struck, indicate children’s work. An excess of incendiary material, an excess of matches, an excess of marks and scratches are all signs of inexperience and lack of planning.
The juvenile is apt to leave telltale traces of his presence, such as chewing gum wrappers, small items classed as toys, even empty match boxes. He is apt to be careless about his tracks, and small footprints immediately classify the culprit.
Reprinted from Chapter 4, “Elements of Arson Investigation,” published by The Reuben H. Donnelley Corporation price $5.00.
Often juveniles engage in a certain amount of destructiveness or vandalism before starting a fire. Sometimes they steal from a building, then get scared and start a fire in the hope of destroying the evidence of theft. Such arson cases lack the careful planning and dexterity of the adult using arson as a cover-up.
Favorite juvenile targets
Certain fire locations point to juveniles. Fires in vacant buildings, under houses, in garages, in trash piles or grass, or in areas where children play should prompt the investigator to check the small fry that frequently use these spots. Unoccupied buildings near play areas are likely targets of juvenile fire setters, especially if they are somewhat hidden from observation.
Fires near incinerators or picnic fires may have been started by children who lighted them from the existing fire.
Close observation of children at a fire scene may yield some clues. Children are not very good at concealing emotional tensions. Therefore, if a child acts disturbed or unnatural, he is a good suspect. If one leaves early, after people begin arriving, it may be due to a feeling of guilt.
As may be expected, the older arsonists in the juvenile class show less awkwardness and take on more of the characteristics displayed by adults.
Motives of the juvenile arsonist
The motives of juveniles are not deep-seated and calculated like those of the adult criminal, although the damage done can often be quite as devastating. Generally, the motives of juveniles follow the fairly simple lines of their mental processes. Many of their fires, lacking in real motive, are caused by accidents, carelessness, playing with incendiary materials, pranks, etc. Then there are fires started by thrill seekers, or members of gangs who wish to impress fellow gang members. Sometimes such acts are prompted by the impulse of the moment, without considerating the serious consequences.
A child may be motivated by pique or rage that leads him to set fire as a means of retaliation. A property owner who has been severe with children who have pestered him may find himself the victim of arson. Parents who have been harsh with a child might have a fire in a clothes closet.
Pyromania may manifest itself in a person at an early age. Sometimes a young person with such tendencies just wants to start some excitement or wants to be the center of attention. When the symptoms warrant it, a psychiatric examination should be made to determine whether the case is one of mental abnormality.
Dealing with the juvenile
The initial approach to a child is very important in gaining his confidence and lessening his fear. From the beginning, the investigator’s appearance and deportment should conform to standards that will maintain respect. His language and manner should build up trust in the child. This requires patience and sincerity.
Explaining to a child that fire fighters are friends to the community, and that you want to help youngsters stay out of trouble will get more positive results than threatening him or adding to his fears and anxieties. The investigator should ask himself, “If this were my son, how would I want him to be treated?” Courteous tones, gentlemanly language and a persuasive manner need not indicate lack of firmness and justice, nor unawareness of the seriousness of the offense.
The first step in questioning the child is to select a suitable place. The author prefers to question a child in the presence of one or both parents. However, there may be occasions when this is not advisable. For instance, if the child’s home conditions are very bad and relations between the child and parents are strained, you may get better results if you talk to him alone. When questioning a girl suspect, it is always advisable to have a woman present. She can be a social service worker, a policewoman, a teacher or the mother.
An office, fire station or police station offer places to get a juvenile away from his friends, his possible accomplices, and usual sources of support. The school affords a good location for such an interview as the child can be isolated from his companions while still in a familiar setting. Furthermore, the teachers and school staff can assist in many ways.
Conversation with a suspect should begin in a friendly manner about routine things. Ask his name, where he lives, what grade he is in, what he likes to do, etc. You can get around to questions on the fire after he is somewhat relaxed. Keep your questions and terminology simple, and do not let his attention wander. Let the child tell the story in his own way.
If you notice any discrepancies, do not mention them until he has finished; then ask about them. Children are not so adept at extricating themselves from lies as the practiced criminal. While answering questions, they often expose themselves before they realize it. Skillful questioning and surprise questions often bring out things a child had no intention of revealing.
In trying to get the child to tell the truth, the investigator should appeal to whatever traits of idealism or qualities of honor the suspect may possess. He should also make him understand that the truth will give less trouble than lies. In trying to make it easy for him to admit his participation, the investigator might cite a case of some man, now admired and respected, who made a few mistakes in his youth.
Your assessment of a child’s statements may be governed somewhat by his background. Children brought up in different environments have different standards of value and different codes of honor. Ascertain whether he has ever been in any previous trouble, what the other children think of him, what kind of person his teachers judge him to he.
Bear in mind that a confession is not sufficient evidence in itself. It must be Corroborated; some children will confess to things they did not do and to fires they did not set.
Of course, the parents have to be brought into the picture. This is not always an easy task. The best way of doing this is for the investigator to go to their home and explain as well as possible the trouble involving their child. The cooperation of the parents is very desirable. Many parents are quite helpful and understanding in such cases. This not only eases the task of the investigator, but opens the best path for corrective training of the child.
Special handling may be required to avert future trouble. The investigator can help parents set up a program to insure better control of the child and develop his self-control. External disciplinary measures may keep the child out of trouble, but he should learn respect for property rights and the laws of society, as well as respect for himself as a part of society. The experience derived from a background of various cases and follow-ups can be of great value to the investigator in advising parents on remedial measures.
An effectively administered punishment (suitable but not too severe), closer supervision, some basic training on the hazards of fire and a diversion of the child’s free time toward wholesome activities may be sufficient to turn a majority of young “would-be” arsonists in the right direction.
In other cases, the parents themselves may present a problem. Their qualifications for raising children may he so poor, or entirely lacking, that they need counseling and reeducation themselves. Farther down the scale are the cases where the home conditions are so bad that the juvenile court may have to compel the parents to change the home conditions or remove the child from such surroundings.
The court should be used as a last resort. There are juveniles who do not respond to ordinary treatment, and stringent means must be employed to protect society.
Whenever a case is taken over by other authorities, the investigator should withdraw and keep out of it unless his aid is solicited.
Sources of aid
The investigator may be highly competent in arson detection, but there are certain aspects to be considered over and above the mere solution of who started a fire when the culprit turns out to be a minor. There are organizations which can be called upon to assist in juvenile arson cases. These should be utilized as the case warrants. The investigator should cultivate the goodwill and cooperation of those in authority who are trained to deal with children and should solicit the continuation of their aid after his job of investigation has been completed. Some of these and their available contributions will be considered briefly.
Most schools have occasional fire drills and a little fire prevention education. An excess of juvenile fires in a particular area might indicate a lack of effectiveness of the school’s program on this subject. The investigator can approach the principal and suggest more active measures. He may recommend that the fire department be asked to help plan special fire prevention studies for the entire student body.
As soon as a juvenile comes under the surveillance of an arson investigator, the latter should go to the head of the school, explain the situation and request cooperation. Here he can obtain a great deal of pertinent information on the child, such as his deportment, grades, adjustment to classmates, participation in activities, and personality and character traits. Also, contacts may be made which will help solve the case.
Proper handling of the case by the investigator will enable him to enlist the aid of the school staff in follow-up services for particular individuals for whatever period is deemed advisable after the completion of the case.
There will be occasions when the suspect is involved in other misdemeanors—vandalism, burglary, sex crimes, etc.—which come under the authority of the juvenile bureau. Good relations with juvenile officers can be mutually beneficial in handling overlapping cases. The investigator should become acquainted with key personnel. Mutual exchange of information on problem children can help in handling cases in both departments.
The investigator should not try to handle cases which are best managed by juvenile authorities. These include delinquencies other than arson, juveniles who have set numerous fires, serious personality problems, bad home conditions, and unfit parents.
Emphasizing the positive rather than the negative has therapeutic value in changing behavior patterns. Participation in any type of sport or athletics, taking up a suitable hobby, and joining young people’s groups or clubs can open new fields for the development of a well-adjusted personality and the discovery of potential skills. The investigator should encourage the use of these outlets at every opportunity. He should become acquainted with the sponsors of such community activities and enlist their aid in particular cases.
In cases where home conditions are bad, a social service worker or a family counselor may be called upon. When the juvenile is a transient, the Traveler’s Aid Society may be able to assist. If the problems are financial, the welfare board or whatever county or city agency handles such matters should be brought into the picture. The possible services of a church or pastor should not be overlooked. We never know at what period, or at what fragile moment, the right words may change the course of a life.