Link between arson and domestic violence explored in new research project

Date 11.05.2016

A new research project has been launched which works with children and young people to investigate the link between deliberate fire setting and a background of domestic violence.

The study is being carried out by researchers at the University of Northampton’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing, in partnership with the joint Arson Task Force (Northamptonshire Police and Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service).

The aim is to interview children and young people aged between five and 18 who have been actively involved in arson or fire setting, as well as their parents or carers.

The Arson Task Force (ATF) already carries out intervention work with both children and adults who are known to be fire setters or arsonists and it is believed that at least 75 per cent of these people have domestic violence in their backgrounds.  Their work has highlighted that children as young as five have been involved in fire setting, having experienced violence in their family.

In running this partnership project, the ATF and the University of Northampton hope to better understand the link between violence or abuse in the home and fire setting behaviour. The hope is that the project’s results can be used to inform future intervention work.

Shaun Johnson, ATF co-ordinator, said: “When children play with fire it is important that we educate them about the dangers – and most children never play with fire again. Unfortunately we have seen this correlation between fire setting/arson and domestic violence/child abuse. This is the reason we are working closely with the University of Northampton. It is hoped that the research they do, with the consent of our clients, will lead to better understanding and promote early intervention.

“Already we have seen cases where children have set fires in the home purely as a cry for help. We need to better understand this phenomenon to ensure that any intervention we do has a positive impact. We have seen from working with adult offenders how violent arson can be. If early intervention had been available in their lives, could we have prevented these serious and costly crimes?  We are very grateful to the university for its support.”

Dr Jane Callaghan, professor of psychology, said: “It isn’t something that has been significantly researched. The way that children understand their experience of domestic violence and how that translates into fire setting is interesting.

“Children and young people affected by domestic violence often find creative and resourceful ways of coping and of expressing their distress.  Young people who experience domestic violence look for ways to cope and to self-soothe. Some will find safe places to hide, others will play out their stress, with friends or their pets, or they might find other, more cathartic ways of releasing their distress  by, for example, playing aggressive sport.

“Looking at fire can be a very calming experience.  For instance, fire is sometimes used within meditative practice, and if you look at a flame it can be something very soothing.  On the other hand, fire is also exciting, risky and dangerous.

“With fire setting, you have the double effect of it being exciting on one hand and calming on another. Our hunch is that it might be a way of managing the emotional fall-out of domestic violence. To help children who set fires, we need to understand what motivates them. So is it perhaps a coping strategy and a stress release? Obviously if it is, it is a dysfunctional coping strategy, but we need to understand what it does for young people, so that we can intervene to help them find safer ways to manage their emotions.”

The ATF will be working closely with the university to identify families for the project. These will be people they have historically worked with or who they are currently working with.

Members of the public are also invited to come forward and volunteer to take part in the research if they have suffered domestic violence and have witnessed their children fire setting. These volunteers are asked to email University of Northampton researcher Joanne Alexander.