Children Playing With Fire

When California authorities acknowledged this week that they were "not sure'' whether they'd charge a 10-year-old who'd allegedly been playing with matches when he set the Santa Clarita fire that scorched 38,000 acres, destroyed 21 homes and forced the evacuation of 15,000 people, they were speaking from experience.

Juveniles accounted for more than half of the 1,432 arson arrests made around the state in 2004, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the California Justice Department.

In San Diego County alone, 85 juvenile arson cases were brought to the office of Deputy District Attorney Cyndi Jo Means this year.

But no matter how vast and expensive the damage, how hard can you really come down on a kid playing with matches?

"A child who is under 14 can't be prosecuted unless we can show that they know right from wrong,'' she told ABC News.

Means and other prosecutors in forest-rich, drought-stricken areas like Southern California face tough choices when it comes to youngsters playing with fire. She has chosen to prosecute 65 of those 85 juvenile arson cases.

"But even when found responsible, very few underage arsonists are sent to juvenile hall or jail," she said.

So increasingly, prosecutors, judges, even social workers and firefighters, are referring young firestarters to programs like San Diego County's Burn Institute, where fire-prone children receive therapy, play-act scenarios and learn how to reach safety should they get caught in a fire.

"About 90 percent of the children that we see here have already started a fire or played with matches, and the other 10 percent are children who are inquisitive in asking, usually parents, about fire play,'' said Aida Flores, the program's director of services and a juvenile fire center interventionist.

"We try to format the program according to the incident that happened to them, whether it be fireworks or matches or lighters or just an inquisitive 'they want to know' type of thing,'' Flores said.

She said the program provides an outlet for these children to talk through their sometimes natural adolescent fascination with fire, and helps interventionists like herself pinpoint those children who seem to have more severe issues.

"We've actually had many kids tell us that they like to play with fire, and I don't disallow that type of conversation," Flores said. "I allow them to open up and tell me, 'What is it about fire that you like?'"

She said often she'll speak with a child who tells her that when they told their parents they like playing with fire, the parents say, "No, you don't like fire!' And then … the conversation basically ends at that point. So what we are trying to do is get the child to open up. ... 'We are having a conversation about what you are feeling about fire,' so they are very honest most of the time."

The need for programs like the one at the Burn Institute are clear. In 2006, 49 percent of all arson arrests nationwide were juveniles under 18, according to the U.S. Justice Department, and of 58 percent of those were juveniles under age 15.

San Diego dad John Phillips' 6-year-old son burned down the family home playing with a lighter.

"My youngest and middle son lost everything'' in the fire, Phillips told ABC News. "Just the impact! I'm worried about my older son being angry with his younger brother.''

Even for a 6-year-old, the effects of such an act can be devastating and immediate.

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