HARRISBURG - When Dan Soulier interviewed a girl suspected of starting a fire at a public housing complex, he found a chaotic home life that included violence and prostitution.
"This child was fighting for survival," said Soulier, an assistant fire chief in Harrisburg. "I knew right then and there it was beyond my capacity as a fire chief. I needed to get help."
Soulier helped organize a counseling program for potential firebugs that has enrolled more than 200 juveniles from several counties since 2005. Many suffer from anger, depression or other mental health problems.
The South Central Juvenile Firesetter Intervention Program works to educate and rehabilitate children who are prone to starting fires or playing with matches. The number of referrals is rising, from 56 in 2005 to 86 last year.
Organizers hope to prevent arsons such as one in Harrisburg last month that left a firefighter injured. Authorities believe that the vacant house was set ablaze by four children between 11 and 13 years old.
"I don't think the general public is really aware of the prevalence of fire-setting among juveniles," said Mary Brady, the program's operations director.
A volunteer team that includes firefighters, police officers and mental-health workers interviews the child at home, then presents its findings to experts at the Dauphin County District Attorney's Office.
The panel might recommend mental-health counseling for the child or family, visits to the home by child-welfare workers or other types of help.
The state picks up the tab for about 80 percent of the counseling sessions, although some are covered by private insurance, Soulier said.
"Only about 3 percent have played with fire again," said Soulier, the program's executive director. "In the therapy world, that's exceptional." *