Burning desire: A Lewiston mother struggles with her fire-setting 7-year-old

LEWISTON — Raequann Lunt started his first fire almost three years ago. He'd found matches and lit a sock in his bedroom.

CITfirestarterP071110
Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

Laura Foster of Lewiston with her 7 year old son.

He was 5.

Two years ago, he placed his pillow on the stove and turned on the burner. That fire gutted the kitchen.

He was 6.

In May, while Raequann (Ray-KWAN) was visiting his uncle's home, a younger cousin showed him where his father kept a container of gasoline and a lighter for camping. Raequann poured the gas on a stick and lit it. The ground was so dry that the flames immediately spread to a vacant trailer. Firefighters from several departments battled the blaze, but the home was destroyed.

He was 7.

Raequann's mother is afraid of what he might do when he's 8.

"As he gets older the fires seem to be getting bigger, " said Laura Foster. "Eventually they're going to hurt someone."

Raequann has been getting help. After each fire, his mother said, he's spent time in the behavioral treatment ward at area hospitals. Over the past three years he's regularly seen a psychiatrist, a counselor, a case manager and other professionals. But the fires have kept coming.

The family has taken to removing all fire-starting items from the house and stashing any needed lighters in a locked box. Foster and her new husband sleep in shifts — he during the day and she at night — so someone's always awake when Raequann is home. They're getting an alarm for his bedroom door so they know when he gets up at night. But it's all a short-term solution to what is potentially a long-term problem: Raequann likes to start fires.

"He can't control himself," his mother said. "He'll tell you that. He's told the state that. He tells all of his workers, 'I can't control myself.'"

In Maine there is help for young fire setters, but that help is largely limited to assessment, education and outpatient counseling, nearly all of which Raequann's already gone through. So, in desperation after the May fire, Foster typed "fire setting programs" into the Google search engine.

She found the Brandon School.

Located in Natick, Mass., Brandon is a residential program that specializes in childhood fire setters. Highly regarded by experts throughout the country, including those in Maine, it has a near-perfect record of success with fire setters as young as 7 and as old as 17.

Suddenly, Foster had hope.

However, it's not as simple as enrolling him in school. Brandon costs up to $410 a day, an amount his mother can't afford. Since Raequann is on state insurance, the state would have to approve payment. The process for getting him there has been slow, filled with frustrating discussions, arguments, meetings and delays. At one point, Foster said, Raequann's case manager told her Raequann was too young and the program was too far away — the state wouldn't pay. Since then, there have been more meetings, more discussions. Finally, a possibility.

But Foster fears her son's time is running out.

High risk

At first, Foster thought Raequann's fire-setting was a phase. He was only 5, after all.

He'd lit the sock on fire next to his fish tank, saying he was trying to keep his fish warm. The flames were easily doused with water, but Foster wanted to make sure he got the point that playing with fire was dangerous.

"We called the Fire Department, just to scare him," she said.

Fire officials talked to Raequann about the fire, asked him questions, completed an assessment. Their determination: It was not just a phase. He was not a little boy who could simply be scolded out of playing with matches.

Although the fire itself hadn't been serious, they believed Raequann's fire-setting was.

"They said, 'He's at too high of a risk. There's nothing we can do,'" Foster said.

She got him into therapy with a local psychiatrist. For a while, everything was quiet.

Then there was the kitchen fire.

Pregnant with her third child, spotting and experiencing numbness in her legs, Foster had left Raequann and his two cousins in the care of her 12-year-old daughter while she rushed to the hospital. Foster's sister lived a few streets away and she said she'd be over. The kids would be alone for no more than 10 minutes.

But before her sister could arrive, Foster's daughter called. The house was on fire.

"The smoke detectors are going off (in the background) and she's, like, banging on everybody's doors getting everybody to come out," Foster said.

With the apartment building located right behind the fire station, the fire was quickly extinguished. However, the damage had been done. The family would spend nearly two weeks living elsewhere while the kitchen was repaired.

Foster asked that her son be reassessed.

"(Raequann) was even more severe than he was the last time," she said.

He spent some time as a patient in St. Mary's Regional Medical Center's behavioral unit. After he came home, Foster and Raequann's case manager sought more help for him.

"We had tried getting him everything, every service we could for fire-setting," Foster said.

He received in-home support with workers who took him out four times a week, serving as mentors and giving his mother a respite. His family removed all fire-starting material from their house, monitored what he saw on TV and kept a constant watch on him.

Still, they sometimes caught Raequann playing with matches and lighters.

"He could find them anywhere. He could find them outside," Foster said. "There was one time we were out walking and we had stopped at the store. He was right outside while I was inside paying for something. The lady that works at the store, she had just left her lighter and her cigarette out there because she was on break and she went in to ring somebody in. It was just as easy and as quick as that. "

Foster suspected that her son had set more fires than the two she knew about. She started telling her neighbors about him and warning the parents of Raequann's friends whenever they invited him over. He began losing friends.

"It's so hard because he doesn't understand why he can't go over to people's houses," Foster said.

Foster has tried grounding him, tried taking away privileges and keeping him inside. Some acquaintances have told her she should hit Raequann or burn him. Foster has balked at both.

"I'm not going to burn my child," she said. And besides, "He's burned himself before. It doesn't matter."

One day in May, she took Raequann with her to her brother's house to baby-sit his children. Her brother lived in a rural trailer park, had a swimming pool, had kids Raequann could play with. Getting out of the city sounded like a good idea.

"The kids were literally outside playing in the pool one minute ... the next thing I know the two boys are flying in saying, 'Somebody set the trailer on fire!'" Foster said. "I knew right as soon as they said it. I know my son and I know how he is."

In this fire, it turned out, Raequann wasn't alone. The boys at first said a stranger set the blaze. They later admitted that they had done it, with Raequann's cousin getting his father's lighter and pointing out the gasoline.

Foster is certain Raequann had no idea gas could be used to light fires before that.

"As far as he knew, gasoline goes in the car and that was it," she said.

But Raequann was the one who poured the gas on a stick and lit it, so his mother considers him responsible.

The fire destroyed the vacant trailer. Firefighters said the boys were lucky neither of them was hurt — particularly Raequann, who touched the flame to the gas-soaked stick.

A crisis worker interviewed him soon after that fire.

"The lady asked him, 'Will you play with fire again?' He's like, 'No.' Then later on he switched his story and said, 'Well, I can't tell you I won't. I can't control myself,'" Foster said. "Then he's telling the lady he wanted to go back in the fire and kill himself because he's just a bad person."

Why

Children set fires for many reasons, according to experts. The vast majority are simply curious. In fact, fire-starting is so common among young boys that experts estimate 70 to 90 percent of men started fires at least once when they were children.

But sometimes it's more than curiosity. Some children set fires as part of criminal mischief. Others are in crisis and set fires in response to a bigger issue — like one little boy in Maine who set his bed on fire because he was being molested there and thought getting rid of the bed would make the molestation stop. Others have deeper psychological issues.

Because fire can so easily get out of control, the size of the blaze tells experts nothing about a child's motivation — a curious 4-year-old with a lighter can burn down a house just as easily as a psychologically disturbed teenager.

The Brandon School's executive director, Timothy Callahan, likes to recall the talk a Brandon expert once gave to a group of 100 Rotary Club members. At one point the expert asked how many of the men had ever set a fire as a boy.

"Almost everybody raised their hand. And the guy in Rotary who is actually a very well-known insurance person said, 'Well, I set the town forest on fire,'" Callahan said. "That tells you sometimes it's very difficult to figure out how much of this is a stupid kid doing a stupid thing that got out of control."

Only a professional assessment can determine which category a child falls into.

Between January 2000 and June 2010, more than 2,500 children started fires in Maine, according to the Fire Marshal's Office. Those fires caused 14 deaths and 115 injuries, and they cost nearly $41 million in damage. It is unclear how many of those children were simply curious about fire and how many had a serious problem.

In Maine, curious fire setters are handled by parents, school programs and local fire departments that teach small children about the dangers of fire and their families about child-proofing. Criminal fire setters are usually dealt with by parents, police and the court system. Children in crisis and those with deeper psychological issues are referred to mental health professionals, social service agencies and other service providers.

Maine most notably offers the Juvenile Fire Safety Collaborative, a three-year-old program that connects and trains fire and police officials, educators, the court system and social service agencies to assess and work with young fire setters. The collaborative has been lauded by experts, including those at the Brandon School, for bringing together so many groups to deal with fire-setting by kids.

But no program in Maine specializes in the most intense young fire setters.

"Residential is the ideal. Nobody's going to be kidding anyone about that," said Jerry DiMillo, who served as director of the Juvenile Fire Safety Collaborative until the program lost its federal funding. The collaborative is now part of the Maine Department of Public Safety.

DiMillo now volunteers with the collaborative. Although he believes Maine is doing the best it can with the money and resources it has, he said the state simply doesn't have what some young fire setters need: specialized residential treatment.

"I'd like a Brandon," he said.

Help, before it's too late

Raequann is a quiet, reserved boy with large, dark eyes that look at the ground, his hands, passing traffic — anywhere but at the stranger sitting next to him. He's going into the third grade this fall and he loves math class because "you do the work first and then you color." He likes playing games, "but not board games. Video games." He believes fire is "bad."

"Because it can hurt somebody," he says softly.

Ask why he starts fires and he doesn't answer. Ask where he finds things to start fires and he shrugs slightly and looks down. He is not comfortable talking about it.

That, his mother thinks, is part of the problem. No one has ever quite gotten to the bottom of why Raequann starts fires.

"I think he's nervous and afraid to say why he does it. But I'm thinking if he's in the (Brandon) program and around other kids that have the same problem as him, he may open up more and tell them why," she said.

At times, Raequann has laughed and smirked about the fires he's started. Other times he seems contrite and ashamed. Once he said lighters were talking to him.

Although Foster gave permission for everyone connected to her son's case to discuss his situation, his psychiatrist and case manager declined to comment. Tri-County Mental Health Services confirmed Raequann has been treated for the past three years for fire-setting behavior, but would not say anything else.

The State Fire Marshal's Office said it is aware of Raequann and his problem. Officials there have put Foster in touch with the High Fidelity Wraparound Maine Initiative, a state program that connects children who have serious emotional or behavioral issues with a team of people who can offer mental health, social work, education and other comprehensive support. The Fire Marshal's Office is newly acquainted with the wraparound program. Raequann is one of the first children it has referred.

Joe Thomas, assistant state fire marshal, is excited about the initiative's potential to help young fire setters. "You have just about every possible agency, profession, discipline sitting at that table that is going to need to be involved."

But Foster said the wraparound program has no openings until August. And even then, the help it seems to offer is help Raequann's already gotten. He needs, she believes, a residential program geared toward fire setters.

"I just want him to get help before it's too late," she said.

Even Thomas believes Raequann might best benefit from residential help.

"We've got somebody who needs some type of treatment like Brandon would offer," the assistant state fire marshal said.

Foster said that after Raequann's case manager initially told her the state wouldn't pay for Brandon, things have started moving — slowly. A discussion here, a meeting with Raequann's psychiatrist and case manager there. But a parent must formally ask the state to pay for residential treatment for a child, and that requires an application with information from the child's therapist, service providers and case manager.

Joan Smyrski, director of children's behavioral services for the state, said Maine rarely sends children out of state for residential treatment anymore, and hardly ever children as young as 7, because regulations require children be placed in the least restrictive environment possible and the Department of Health and Human Services has found that children do better when treatment is received close to home. Right now, only 14 kids are being treated for problems out of state. But Smyrski said the state takes seriously all requests and would definitely consider paying for Raequann to attend Brandon. It just needs his application.

It's the case manager's responsibility to submit it. According to the state, that hasn't been done.

Tri-County leaders declined to comment on the specifics of Raequann's case, but Executive Director Chris Copeland said there are many steps in completing an application.

"We're doing everything we can," he said. "Obviously, we're incredibly concerned about this young man."

In the meantime, Foster said more meetings have been scheduled to discuss Raequann's situation. The process is frustrating for her, particularly since she believes she may finally have found a solution to her son's fire setting, if only she can get him there — before the next fire.

"My worst fear is if something happens, the first thing they're going to do is say, 'Where were the parents? What were they doing?'" she said.

Next week, Raequann turns 8.

ltice@sunjournal.com

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Comments

Douglas Mac antSaior's picture

Keep picturing Balls of Fury

All right...
I've got something to say...yeah.
It's better to burn out... than fade away!
....no serenade, no fire briggade...just a pyromania!
What do you want?
Come on, sing along!

Psychological

This is psychological Tired not anything else that can be said or done completely. You say beating a child will work when it does not. This is not about anything other then mental illness and how to contain it in a child. I wonder if you've ever lifted a hand to any child that you had, choking them, and or beating them. You know a few punches here or there just a little bit to loosen them up rather then knowing the consequences?

Laughing

I'm laughing at you right now because that approach does not work without knowing the psychology of the situation. If you think backing off and playing a game with others is fun then anything that we say to each other is in the wind. You wanted to enjoy this and end the mental illness angle because you're not smart enough to comprehend that angle. This is not a foolish mindset it is the truth or we could have what you wanted and eliminate completely any budget for fulfilling mental illnesses simply to satisfy that mindset. It doesn't get better without diagnostics and tests being performed since you seem to think that a good old fashioned reading worked how about a good old fashioned cold read just to satisfy my own justified ventures to probe the psyche?

Trashy

You insult others for you're own personal gain and to feel a little bit better about yourself. From what you're saying that fits you and Tired well enough to match and fits neatly into the confidence game you play on here. Just a little bit more not conning but feeling better about yourself.

I hope

I hope this little boy will get the help he needs...I live in a place with a burn victim and she is very badly scared for the rest of her life...She was burnt saving her brother's life. He lite some curtains on fire...She was burnt on her face, lost some of her hair and on her body...She is very lucky to be alive...

private life

perhaps this story needs to be dealt with in private....we all know the boy needs help..so get it...I'm sure some therapist would like to make a name for them self? and if the parent can afford Internet, they can afford help.

Melissa  Dunn's picture

lets shed some light on this

lets shed some light on this issue... and i'm glad the mother was brave enough to do so... good for her!!! this issue is more prevalent than we think. anyone talk to dhs? get with the program.

 's picture

as Johnny Cash would say, If

as Johnny Cash would say, If someone don't stop the 'Ring Of Fire', the kid will be 'Stuck In Folsom Prison' in twenty years." (thank you Johnny Cash)

RONALD RIML's picture

The 'Spirit" of Fire is primal to Man

Fire has appealed and been all-powerful to Mankind since the beginnings of time. For all of the many millenia in which we've existed it has helped us survive by providing warmth, cooking, and weaponry in warfare. We associate mystical attributes to it, and fire has long been included in religion and mythology. There is no accident that we physiologically and psychologically respond to fire - the creation of fire, the cleansing of fire, the destruction of fire. It's not a 'phase' - it's who and what we are.

 's picture

Tron means 'Percy the Putrid

Tron means 'Percy the Putrid Puking Pumpkin' in Swahili.

Audrey Alcala's picture

Well, Saint candiceanne, I

Well, Saint candiceanne, I am certainly glad you were not my mother. You may THINK you understand disorders, but apparently you do not. And this child is 7 years old!!! He does not have the skills to know how to control himself!!! What he has is an ILLNESS! Don't you think they might just teach them at Brandon how to deal with this and control it? ....get a clue for goodness sakes! Ahhhhh, if only I were as perfect as you.

Audrey Alcala's picture

It's wonderful that they have

It's wonderful that they have a place like Brandon to help these kids, but why do they have to make it so hard for parents to be able to get their kids there by charging $410 a DAY? Even parents that make good money would have to scrimp and save for that. I know that in the end, it's worth it, but my goodness, people are desperate when they send their kids there, make it more accessable! My best wishes to Raequann, believe in yourself, young man and you will get better! How scary it must be for such a little boy to realize, that young, he has such a serious problem. On the other hand, how wonderful for a little boy to know it is a problem. Good luck, Raequann!!! You can do it!!!

Melissa  Dunn's picture

if you truly believe this to

if you truly believe this to be so-then why the harshness? have you turned away a child for being a fire starter? have you turned away a child for their at the moment bad behaviors because of what they have had to endure in their lifetime. there are so many 'unwanted' children in maine and even in the world and this is how we treat them? its NOT just the parents trying to survive and raising their children in a single parent household-or two parent household that are parenting their children and teaching them along the way to be responsible adults... behaviors or addictions can just happen-its deeper than we may think. i just kinda wonder about what people think about mental health issues... i mean are we that ignorant?

Melissa  Dunn's picture

and you're allowed to judge cuz ur better than who?

if rae had a parental control problem i don't think that his mother would love him so much to be pursuing the mass deal.

i still will not ever understand how someone can make accusations or arguments about someone when they know not a thing about them. there is something very terribly wrong with this picture.

Tell me

Tell me something Candice do any of you're own children suffer from RAD or any other anti-social disorders due to you're pressure on their lives to conform squarely to the demands of the routine life that you want? Looking at it logically that would be an abusive parenting style not all parents understand mental illness and judging from it the outdated doctrinal thought that you used comes from an older school of logical assumptions. It is impulse control which we learn about as future educators in every college course. He cannot stop himself and it is a stronger obsession and form of thought with obsessive compulsive disorder. Not boiling down to active parenting it boils down to mental illness. You want that parenting style to be a scaffold developmental methodology yet it is not and prompts abusive policies within a household by completely removing them. You want to destroy a family over you're own little cruel game if you want to advocate that I could advocate that the little abusive pro-conformist stance damages children.

Handicaping and Disabling

Don't say I'm handicapping or disabling you know I have aspergers but what burns you up inside that I came out of the same situations and know the factors. This is psychological not parental what you tear apart from the child you have foreknowledge of and say it anyway.

Laurie Bryant's picture

Grammar and spelling

First and foremost, I hope the child and the family get the treatment they need. There is no simple solution to this situation, and I firmly believe that the entire family needs to get involved. The problem cannot be solved simply by sending the child away (I think most people know this). The parents must be involved (as it sounds like they are) and they will need to re-evaluate the way in which they deal with the child's actions and the other possible factors that are contributing to his disturbing behavior. I think it would be unfortunate for the state to foot the entire bill, thoughl. Has anyone contacted Brandon to see if payment is negotiable or if there is a sliding fee scale for low income applicants? Are there other social services out there that can assist? I was curious, so I looked up on my private insurance plan and treatment at such a facility as Brandon is not covered. Incidently, I do not have the financial resources to pay for such inpatient treatment if something similar happened. I know the state would certainly not offer assistance to me in this situation. Very messy on all accounts. I would suggest, again, to appeal to local social service groups that may be able to assist.

Secondly, I find it very difficult to read most posts on this forum due to poor grammar and spelling. I am sure people have excellent points to make, but I lose interest if there is one paragraph that is a giant run-on sentence. I know this is probably petty, but constant double negatives, improper verb conjugation, and run-ons detract from your point (even though you have an important one to make). I know we all make occasional mistakes, but I will stop reading a post if it does not make sense. I am not a snob, nor do I think I am more educated than many people on this forum. I simply want to point out that sometimes the purpose of a post is lost if a reader cannot follow your writing.

Melissa  Dunn's picture

exactly-you don't owe anyone

exactly-you don't owe anyone an explanation. never mind the rudeness on sj-many are just full of it. they are no better than you or i... they just want to believe they are. you have shed light on this issue-it is common in children... people who foster children have the right to ask for no fire starters-but i think with your real life experiences it goes to show that any child should not be turned away, but there is help out there for the children who desperately need it. it is also great experiences going to sessions (or hopefully mass (fingers crossed")) for you child-this can teach him life skills/social skills that he may have otherwise may not have a chance to have. you have done a good thing. don't regret it.

Melissa  Dunn's picture

'having worked with and among dysfunctional families'

...must be in the wrong line of work. what does this have anything to do with this woman and her son? are we judging?

Melissa  Dunn's picture

loverly-just had a rainbow

loverly-just had a rainbow over my house...

would you rather me use opinionated, crast, hateful, crude, ignorant? what? i don't mind that other people have different thoughts or feelings to situations, etc. but to make a mockery of others, belittle, down them, be hateful, or self-righteous is not very becoming of someone who chooses to act that way. i think it is more that when i have to different opinion and not afraid to speak up-its a bad thing for those who want to start an argument-which i see no point in-i don't owe an explanation to anyone. all i know is when i go to bed a night and wake up every morning i am being the best person that i can be for myself without causing or wanting ill will on someone or thinking that i am better than someone (cuz i am NOT). i am satisfied in my life without having to put someone down in the meantime while i'm living it.

 's picture

Typical, multiple children

Typical, multiple children with multiple partners, no eduction or parenting skills. No father figure for a role model. Breed them and let the taxpayers feed them. Sad and disgusting.

Melissa  Dunn's picture

good for you momma for trying

good for you momma for trying to get help for your lil one. i hope everything works out for you and your family! the program in mass seems to be a great one...

Douglas Mac antSaior's picture

For all of the second grade

For all of the second grade vitriole being hurled at this post, I can understand why the kid's out of control. DWilson obviously has some kind of experience in the system (police, education, social work...) as his suggested methods are quite valid. The kid is indeed pulling a power grab with the consent of the adults. One of the best things I can add to the list would be a loud door alarm. You can get one for about five dollars and they install in minutes. Stop spending so much time on a bogus DSM diagnosis (unless you can be honest with yourself and admit you like the SSI money) and look at it from the standpoint of a power struggle.

Douglas Mac antSaior's picture

I work in the behavioral

I work in the behavioral field if you must know. Sadly, I see most often that it's a matter of control more often than not. Also, if this parent truly knows their child, than they will stay ahead of their child in the community. Also just as sad, I've seen more "parents" with an entitlement mentallity when it comes to benefits and services.

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