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