The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

What Protects Children from House Fires?

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Though every death in a house fire is tragic, the tragedy is particularly lamentable when the life so lost is that of a child. And according to a study by researchers from the University of Toronto and from the Coroners office in that city, the children most at risk of such untimely death are those living outside the security of a stable and intact family.

In underscoring the significance of their investigation of pediatric deaths in fires, the researchers noted that “residential fire is a leading cause of unintentional death for young children at home and the fifth leading cause of unintentional injury-related death overall,” adding that “in the United States, approximately 2500 children die as a result of residential fires and burns each year, while another 10,000 suffer permanent disability.”

Analyzing data from sixty cases in which a child younger than 16 had perished in an Ontario fire, the Canadian researchers noted the suspiciously elevated overrepresentation of children involved with the Children’s Aid Society (CAS), which provides foster care when government officials are dealing with abused or neglected children. The researchers indeed calculate that children with a history of CAS involvement were “more than 30 times as likely to die in fires as those who were not involved with the CAS.”

Plausibly interpreting “CAS involvement [as] . . . one of many indicators of a potentially unstable family environment,” the researchers conclude that “children from potentially unstable families are at much higher risk of fire deaths” than are peers in stable families. The researcher list “multiple risk factors for fire mortality” that are particularly manifest among children from “poor and unstable families: they are more likely to reside in dwellings with small or no windows and in poorly maintained houses with unsafe wiring and nonfunctional smoke alarms; they have less supervision; and they are more likely to be exposed to smokers in the house.”

The researchers realize that their study confirms findings of earlier research in the U.S. and the U.K. indicating that “being from a single-parent household” is one of the “factors that increase a child’s risk of fire-related injury and death.” Illuminating how family breakdown can increase such risk, the researchers report the astonishing finding of colleagues who conducted a 2002 investigation of pediatric fire deaths in Portland, Oregon: “80% of children with fire-setting behaviour [in this study] lived in divided families.”

It is quite understandable that the researchers would interpret their findings as evidence that fire-protection agencies need to develop “more focused strategies to ensure effectiveness in high-risk groups.” But a broader perspective would surely indicate that it is past time to reduce the size of the high-risk group of North Americans who have lost protective family and marital ties.

(Yingming Amy Chen et al., “Pediatric Fire Deaths in Ontario: Retrospective Study of Behavioural, Social, and Environmental Risk Factors,” Canadian Family Physician 57.5 [May 2011]: e169–e177.)