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How to help boy charged with arson?

Neighbors knew the slender 10-year-old with the buzz cut and baggy shorts as a friendly boy who liked to fish and ride his bike.

But Wednesday, the neighbors got a different view of him _ in the back of a police car, accused of arson and grand theft.

He was charged with starting the fire that had destroyed his home and damaged the boat and home next door. The damage totaled more than $65,000. He also was charged with stealing a $400 lawn mower.

The neighborhood boy was now accused of a felony.

"This is an extremely deadly, dangerous situation," Tarpon Springs police Sgt. Al MacKenzie said. "So what do we do with the child? You don't say, "Don't do that again.' "

What police did was place the boy in handcuffs and take him to the Pinellas County Juvenile Assessment Center, where he remained Thursday afternoon.

The boy clearly needs help, MacKenzie said, and he predicted the boy will get it in the legal system. In a way, he said, the boy's best chance of getting help began when he was arrested.

"This child needs some psychological care," MacKenzie said. "The only way to get that is through the court. The only way the court has jurisdiction to do that is if he's charged."

With children that age, authorities often decide on a probation period and therapy, said Judy Estren, director of the juvenile division of the Public Defender's Office. She would not speak about this particular case, but she said that is the typical outcome after a young child goes through the court system.

"We try to do something that fosters a positive situation," she said.

Children's advocates agree the boy should be treated as someone who needs help, not as a criminal.

"I doubt there are many children under the age of 10 who do not play with fire," said Jack Levine, president of the children's advocacy group Center for Florida's Children. "I would doubt whether . . . he intended to burn down the place where he lived."

Observers of childhood crimes said kids are being charged with crimes at earlier ages. A St. Petersburg Times story last year said more than 4,500 children age 11 and younger were charged with crimes in Florida during the previous fiscal year, many in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

"It seems as though we're seeing more severe behaviors younger and younger," said Tom Riggs, chief executive officer of Directions for Mental Health, a publicly funded organization in northern Pinellas County.

He said children who commit serious crimes could be suffering from a range of problems, from depression to difficulties with impulse control. He said these children can overcome their problems, often with the help of mental health professionals. The key, he said, is for adults not to give up on these children.

"I think when someone is 10 years old, it is criminal behavior on our part to throw in the towel on him," Riggs said.

The immediate future for the boy and his mother, Rena Daggett, 34, was uncertain Thursday. The Red Cross provided emergency shelter for her Thursday. Daggett and the other residents of the home at 811 River View Lane _ Tom Walsh, 39, and Kevin Hill, 41 _ could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Few details were available about the family this week. The boy and his mother had moved into the River Valley mobile home park a few months ago, neighbors said.

"Me and my friends would ride our bikes in the neighborhood and he would come up and talk to us," said Mark Gipson, 15, who lives down the street.

"He made friends with kids in the neighborhood quick."

He was spending his summer like many other boys his age, hanging out with friends, mowing his neighbors' lawns and fishing from a small rowboat docked behind his doublewide mobile home. But in the past few weeks, neighbors say they saw signs of trouble.

"He had been run off by some of the parents in the neighborhood," said Dan Spears, 38, who lives across the street. "I heard the neighbors saying you've always got to watch your stuff when he's around."

Then came the fire.

Witnesses said the boy came running from the home, smoke coming from his nose. He raced to a neighbor's home for help.

When authorities arrived, he offered them several explanations: He said he had thrown water on an electrical outlet; then he said he threw water on exposed wires; then it was a lighter that exploded when he threw it.

Eventually, MacKenzie said, he told them he was lighting cigarettes with a lighter and lighting a birthday candle with the cigarettes, MacKenzie said. He put the candle in a toy car and wandered off after it rolled under furniture.

"Are there problems with this kid? Yeah," MacKenzie said. "It's not just a birthday candle. It's a child playing with fire."

_ Staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report.