Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Hope flickering for pint-sized firebugs

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2005-09-15-macro-match.jpg Be afraid. Be very afraid.Because it appears a handful of Winnipeg kids have taken up a dangerous new "hobby" as they emerge from winter hibernation.In the past few days, police have arrested four boys and girls for setting a string of fires throughout the North End.The youngest culprit has been eight years old. The oldest just 10.The most serious case involves one boy, who police say lit more than 30 different fires.Police said the boy, who's too young to be charged or named under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, began lighting fires to garbage bins in the Burrows Central neighbourhood six months ago.He then apparently began taking his efforts up a notch -- in late March, police said, he threw a firebomb at an Aberdeen Avenue home, causing $1,000 worth of damage to its exterior.On April 5, the boy struck again, breaking into a Burrows Avenue home and setting a fire that resulted in $100,000 damage.Lovely.On Thursday, we learned of three more arrests.Police said an eight-year-old girl and 10-year-old boy torched a garbage bin at Main Street and College Avenue.Another 10-year-old boy then set six autobins on fire in the 300 and 500 blocks of Magnus, Mountain and Burrows avenues during a one-night spree last week.Again, all three are too young to be charged. Fortunately - or perhaps miraculously - nobody was injured in any of these incidents.Police have turned all these firebugs over to guardians - there's no word on whether we're dealing with blood parents, relatives or foster care - and they have all been directed to the provincial Turnabout program.That makes any success in this program somewhat suspect, as it's clear they sorely lack any kind of guidance in their lives.Dave Brickwood, the province's executive director of community justice, told my colleague James Turner earlier this week that co-operation from the adults is essential."We can't force ourselves in," he said.Marc Proulx, a public education co-ordinator for the city's Youth Firestop program, agreed that positive changes are often stymied by difficult parents."It's a family program, and we need their consent. If we don't have their support we're dead in the water," he said.Since 1996, Proulx said his program accepts an average of 165 to 185 youths a year, most of them between the ages of 8-12.Proulx said there are two main reasons for youths to begin setting fires intentionally -- curiosity and crisis."Fire-setting is not the problem itself, it's a symptom of a larger issue," Proulx said.Police and fire officials say the months of April and May are usually peak times for fires set by youths, along with September and October.And perhaps not surprisingly, the culprits are often between the ages of eight and 12.Most of us realize there are a myriad of complex problems facing many of the city's youth - poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, physical and mental abuse, a cycle of violence, etc.But I think the number one cause of what ails this city has to do with a complete and utter lack of guidance at home.After all, what in the hell are these kids doing out on the streets by themselves - at any hour, really, but especially in the late evening or even middle of the night.I see the mother of the most problamatic 10-year-old told a local media outlet this week that she was aware her son had a problem and tried to get him some help through his school.Yet the woman then went on to question whether her boy really did what he's been accused of, and suggest police bullied her boy into some false confessions.In other words, passing the buck. And teaching her children a good lesson about taking responsibility - as in, how to avoid doing so.I wonder why parents of these kids aren't being looked at for charges themselves. It might be difficult to prove in a court of law, but why not take a run at charging them with something like negligenc e.There's also a charge under the Criminal Code for "failing to provide the necessities of life." Normally it applies to depriving someone of food, or medical care.But why can't it apply to other fundamental needs such as love, leadership, discipline and knowledge?After all, does anyone think that many of these kids have truly been given the "necessities" they need in order to have a successful, law-abiding life?Would love to know your thoughts on this issue. Post your comment below.

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About Mike McIntyre

Journalist, national radio show host, author, pundit and cruise director ... Mike McIntyre loves to keep busy.

Mike is the justice reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press, where he has worked since 1997. He produces and hosts the weekly talk radio show Crime and Punishment, which runs on the Corus Radio Network in several Canadian cities.

Born and bred in Winnipeg, Mike graduated from River East Collegiate and completed his journalism studies in the Creative Communications program at Red River College.

He and his wife, Chassity, have two children.

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