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Juvenile arson worries Warren County fire officials

By Joe Beck

Warren County fire officials are increasingly worried about a rash of arsons this year involving juvenile suspects.

Fire Chief Richard E. Mabie and Fire Marshal Gerry Maiatico said Thursday they will focus on juvenile offenders when National Arson Awareness Week arrives Sunday.

"To highlight arson awareness week, we're bringing attention to the reasons people set fires, especially children," Maiatico said.

The best known case involves two boys charged with four felonies and three misdemeanors linking them to a fire that forced E.W. Morrison Elementary School in Front Royal to close for a day in April.

But Maiatico said there also have been what he described as some "pretty small incidents" of minors setting fire to items in the woods. He said an outside school system also referred a student to an intervention program the department opearates to stop children from setting fires. The student had set fire to items in a school bathroom and then tossed them into a sink or toilet, Maiatico said.

Maiatico cited curiosity, boredom, experimentation, anger, stress, a desire for attention and emotional instability as reasons children set fires.

They also pass through phases beginning with incidents such as cardboard boxes or piles of leaves, Maiatico said.

"However, when that curiosity phase goes uneducated and undetected, it turns into a more serious phase of juvenile fire setting that could result in more serious incidents," Maiatico said.

Maiatico said the end of the school year often heralds an outbreak of fires started by juveniles.

"Juveniles are on summer break or summer vacation and naturally the boredom phase sets in, and they're outside and they're playing with friends," Maiatico said.

The fire and rescue services department keeps several intervention specialists on its staff to conduct assessments of youths referred to the anti-arson program. The specialists also design individualized programs intended to discourage juveniles from setting fires in the future.

Maiatico said referrals come from a variety of sources, including parents, school resource officers, school administrators, the county department of social services and from the court system as part of the sentencing for some youthful offenders. The intervention specialists may also pass a juvenile on to a mental health professional if the problem is deemed to be rooted in a psychological disorder.

"Unfortunately, this is a reactive type program," Maiatico said, adding that a juvenile's risk for committing arson often isn't recognized until after he or she has set a fire.

Maiatico said the intervention program has had an excellent track record since it was instituted 10 years ago. He said only one of 40 children who completed the program has set another fire.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com


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