Several Madera and Fresno county agencies came together last week in Oakhurst to share information, and to learn more about the area’s Youthful Offender Program, with the consolidated goal of fire prevention, as well as reducing the number of fire-related burns and deaths.
Jaime Williams, Cal Fire PIO, who ran the meeting said the program is still in the infancy stage, but with the first group recently completing the program, the initial results have been encouraging.
It was in February of this year that the Madera County District Attorney’s Office partnered with Cornerstone Family Counseling of Oakhurst and Cal Fire to begin a firesetter prevention and intervention program geared to evaluate and treat youthful offenders, to get to these children before they get to the point of starting fires in neighborhoods or the forest.
“This is a very interesting and innovative program,” Madera County Sheriff Jay Varney said. “After speaking with the three graduates from the first class, the program seems to have had a very positive effect on the juveniles involved.”
How the firesetter program works is that after a referral comes in, Cornerstone Counseling, along with Williams, conduct an assessment to determine which program best suits the child. For children at low or little risk, there’s a bi-annual two-day academy. Those at medium to high risk are referred to a 13-week academy, which offers a combination of education along with individual and family therapy. Children at this risk level may be assessed by standardized psychological assessments, conducted by Bradly Norlander, PhD.
At the end of the 13 weeks, the child goes before a six-person panel describing the fire, the community service served, and sharing an apology letter. Should the panel decide restorative justice has been satisfied, the offender graduates with the probation officer handing out a certificate.
However, should the panel determine justice has not been satisfied, the offender moves on to the next phase, the formal restorative conferencing, in which the offender comes face-to-face with the victims, who decide what needs to be done to “make it right.”
Williams said that in order for these types of programs to work, support from the community, law enforcement, schools, fire departments, social services and mental health is needed.
“It’s great that other counties are becoming interested in our program,” Madera County District Attorney David Linn said. “It’s very important that Oakhurst and Madera County take the lead on preventing arson in the Sierra mountains.”
Linn urges anyone believing their child has an unusual fascination with fire to contact the district attorney’s Oakhurst office, (559) 683-3300, to arrange for confidential counseling.
☆ Representatives from the Selma Fire Department said they practice Firefighters in Safety Education (FISE), which brings burn prevention information to each child, age pre-k through sixth grade, each year. This program, first implemented in San Francisco in 2001, has a proven track record.
Some topics covered include the importance of smoke alarms (and changing beeping batteries), crawl low and go, and calling 911.
☆ A representative of the Burn Unit in Fresno said the most at-risk groups, when it comes to scald injuries are senior citizens, as well as children under 5. The Remember When Program focuses on fall and burn prevention for seniors.
☆ The Challenge program, which has not yet been developed, addresses the social media fire challenges and peer pressure for children 11-18 years of age.