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'Kid Nation' labor law dispute intensifies

August 22, 2007|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

On Tuesday, the brewing controversy over CBS' "Kid Nation," the forthcoming reality television series that placed 40 children, ages 8 to 15, in the New Mexico desert to build a society without contact with their parents for 40 days, became even more complicated.

Two central issues are whether CBS went around child labor laws and whether the children's safety was at risk during the taping of the show.

Janis Miles, the mother of a 12-year-old contestant who was burned in the face while cooking, filed a complaint in June in Georgia, where she lives. She asked for an investigation into "abusive acts to minors and possible violations of child labor laws."

Her complaint was forwarded to Santa Fe County Sheriff Greg Solano, who on July 20 wrote on his department blog that he had found no criminal wrongdoing related to the show's production.

CBS issued a statement to the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday, in part, to dispute the "course of action being taken by one parent in distorting the true picture of the 'Kid Nation' experience." The creator of the show, Tom Forman, and a CBS attorney also defended the production. "These kids were in good hands and under good care with procedures and safety structures that arguably rival or surpass any school or camp in the country," the statement read.

The network denied The Times' request to interview Miles. When reached by telephone, Miles said she could not speak without the consent of CBS. She has not filed a lawsuit against CBS or Good Time TV Inc., Forman's production company. In an interview, Forman said he was unaware of any other disgruntled parent.

CBS and the producers are also contending with the public statements of New Mexico state officials, who said that the producers and CBS sidestepped child welfare and labor laws.

At issue is whether Good Time TV was required to apply for work permits or special waivers for the children. State officials said they were required to, but CBS and Forman said they did not have to because the children were not employees.

"The cameras are following people through an experience, but those people are not working in the same way that one normally thinks of working a job," said Jonathan Anschell, executive vice president and general counsel for CBS Corp.

But New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions inspectors, who were investigating the permit issue, said producers did not follow standard procedures when they denied them access to the set three times.

According to department spokesman Carlos Castaneda, production began April 1, and the inspector first appeared on the ranch April 13, a Friday. The inspector was allowed into an area where producers work, but he was not allowed to observe filming. The next day he was not allowed access because it was a "closed set." When the inspector returned on Monday, CBS attorneys had contacted county officials and the attorney general's office, so the inspector left.

Anschell said the inspector was allowed on the set April 13, took photos of the children and left because Forman was unavailable. Anschell said the inspector did not show up again until Monday. By then, attorneys working for CBS had filed letters with the attorney general's office and other state departments on why they believed no work permits were necessary.

Anschell added that in correspondence with the attorney general's office, "there was no indication that we were in violation of labor laws."

But in a May 1 letter obtained by The Times on Tuesday, an assistant attorney general had raised skepticism over the interpretation of the laws by CBS attorneys. In a follow-up letter dated May 24, after production was over, the official wrote that the point was moot but asked the lawyers to "involve us in the sorting out, in advance, any possible difficulties" in the future.

From the beginning, Forman said, he knew the "provocative" nature of his show, scheduled to premiere Sept. 19. But he said he was "horrified" at the abuse allegations.

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maria.elena.fernandez@latimes.com

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