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State attorney probing 'Kid' show

A New Mexico official wants to know whether producers lawfully avoided obtaining work permits for children, and shut out inspection.

August 24, 2007|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

The firestorm surrounding CBS' forthcoming "Kid Nation" picked up heat on Thursday when the New Mexico Attorney General's Office confirmed it was launching an investigation into whether state laws were broken during the production, and child activists called for individual states to investigate whether the families violated truancy laws.

"Kid Nation," scheduled to premiere Sept. 19, takes reality television into another realm by placing 40 kids, ages to 8 to 15, in the desert near Santa Fe for 40 days to build a society without any contact with their parents. Although a CBS spokesman said the network acquired a proper film permit to film on the Bonanza Creek Movie Ranch, Atty. Gen. Gary King is examining whether the network and producers lawfully avoided applying for work permits for the children.

"Information is being evaluated now and reviewed in light of all the interest in this," spokesman Phil Sisneros said. "We are determining what our next move will be or even if there will be one. Even though it seems it's kind of a moot point, there are a lot of things to look into that we could still address."

Among the issues the attorney general will review will be the production's permit process, the 22-page contract between parents and the producers, and whether the production company illegally refused to allow inspectors onto the property for routine inspections.

Sisneros said the attorney general's office learned of the production, which ran from April 1 to May 10, when an inspector from the Department of Workforce Solutions notified officials that he was not allowed on the property to inspect work permits. Soon after, the attorney general's office received correspondence from CBS lawyers explaining the children are not "employees" and therefore did not need work permits. Creator Tom Forman said he leased the privately owned Bonanza Creek Movie Ranch site for production.

The inspector's and CBS lawyers' versions of the events differ in that Jonathan Anschell, executive vice president and general counsel for CBS Corp., says the inspector was allowed to the area where producers work and chose not to stay when Forman was not available. A CBS spokesman on Thursday said the network "has nothing to add."

Asked how a TV production company could refuse to let a government worker do his job, Sisneros said: "They pretty much can do anything they want at the site. Obviously, they did. Whether or not what they did is legal is another question."

"I'm thrilled that they would be launching an investigation," said Anne Henry, co-founder of BizParentz, a nonprofit organization that assists child actors and their families. "I would also hope that the individual states where the kids are from also would also look into truancy issues for each of those children."

Because no tutors were on location, as is customary when children are hired for TV shows or movies, parents had to arrange with their children's schools to make up missed work, Forman said.

Of the four children interviewed by The Times, a 15-year-old boy from Reno is home-schooled; a 10-year-old boy from Miami Beach said he had to make up all the work; a 12-year-old from Pearland, Texas, said he took homework to the location and made up the rest of the work; and a 12-year-old girl from Boston said she missed 19 days of school and had "to un-enroll from school and then re-enroll, so I didn't have to make up any work, which was awesome."

"That's illegal," Henry said. "The rules vary in each state and each district so the rules for each child are going to be different, but in no state in this country is it legal for a parent to remove their child from school for a lengthy period of time just because they want to."

She continued: "We don't want to see one production break every rule in the book, whether it's a real law or an industry standard, and see them get away with it because we know it's a slippery slope and our kids will be hurt in the end."

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maria.elena.fernandez@latimes.com

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