Parents’ liability limited when kids start fires

Parents’ liability limited when kids start fires

19 March 2012

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USA — Wildfire – whether you live in the forest or on the prairie it’s nearly impossible to miss the pleas for caution coming from fire officials.

Adults should grasp the danger of the situation, but children don’t always understand the potential for disaster.

With the critical fire conditions, parents need to know where their children are and what they are doing, Jay Esperance, director of the South Dakota Division of Wildland Fire Suppression said last week.

“There is never a time to be playing with matches,” Esperance said.

If a minor child deliberately, or maliciously, causes a fire, parents can be held accountable for limited financial damages, according to Pennington County State’s Attorney Glenn Brenner.

State law limits a parent’s liability to $2,500, according to Brenner.

It’s a rarely used statute, because of the challenges in proving the child’s intent and the level of the parents’ responsibility, he said.

“If you can prove that parents are negligent in the supervision of the child, they can be held accountable,” Brenner said. “Without a doubt these are some of the most difficult cases to prove from a prosecution standpoint.”

There was a situation last year involving a juvenile where arson charges were filed and the child was held accountable in juvenile court, he said.

For parents who are concerned about a child’s interest in fire, the Rapid City Fire Department offers a free assessment of the child.

The one-on-one program includes an evaluation and fire-safety education, according to Monica Colby, a fire education specialist.

The program is often recommended if a child has started a fire, she said. School officials often suggest the program and work with the fire department.

“We can’t mandate it,” Colby said. “It’s up to the parent.”

If a child is found to have a potentially serious interest in fire, professional counseling is recommended.

The program usually involves at least two sessions and some homework to involve the family in fire safety.

The fire department also has a regular series of education program that it does with presents in local schools.

Firefighters visit every school in the district each October during Fire Safety Month to present programs for children in grades K-3.

Another program – Survival Kids — is available grades 4-5.

“We have good cooperation from the schools,” Colby said.

High schools students involved in the Rapid City School District’s Learn and Serve program also have the opportunity to spend four Saturdays with the fire department’s paramedics and emergency medical technicians, Colby said.

Rapid City’s neighbors at the U.S. Forest Service are always willing to bring their top fire prevention specialist – Smokey Bear to school, according to Chris Stover.

“We have different programs for different ages,” Stover said.

Stover also has a special program for high school students that deals with fire history and ecology.

“We go whenever there is a need,” Stover said.

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