CBS Addresses 'Kid Nation' Controversies
There are two central issues: 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 girl who was burned in the face while cooking, filed a complaint in June in Georgia, where she lives. She has 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 posted an item on his department blog revealing Miles' claims and stating he had found no criminal wrongdoing related to the production.
CBS issued a statement to The 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 lawyer 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 CBS 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. Miles has not filed a lawsuit against CBS or Forman's production company, Good Time TV. In an interview, Forman said he is unaware of any other disgruntled parents.
But CBS and the producers are also contending with the public statements of New Mexico state officials, who claim the producers and the network sidestepped child-welfare and labor laws.
At issue is whether Good Time TV Inc. was required to apply for work permits for the children or special waivers that exempted them. State officials say they were required to, but CBS and Forman contend that 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.
The children did receive $5,000 stipends, and they competed for $20,000 gold stars in each episode.
Anschell, however, said the stipend and rewards are not considered wages for work because, "It's a stipend for participating in the show. It's not tied to specific output or tasks."
Inspectors from the Department of Workforce Solutions say producers did not follow standard procedures when they denied them access to the set three times to investigate the permit issue. According to spokesman Carlos Castaneda, the production began April 1 and the inspector first appeared on the ranch April 13. The inspector was allowed into an area where producers work, but was not allowed to observe filming. The next day he was not allowed access because it was a "closed set." When the inspector returned Monday, the CBS lawyers had contacted county officials and the attorney general's office, so the inspector left.
Anschell disputed this version of the events, saying that the inspector was allowed on set April 13, took photographs of the children running through a challenge with the crew, and left because Forman was unavailable. Anschell said the inspector did not show up on set again until Monday. By then, local lawyers working for CBS had filed letters with the attorney general's office and other state departments outlining why they believed no work permits were necessary.
Castaneda said none of his inspectors ever took photographs and he wondered why CBS chose to go over his department to the attorney general's office without meeting with his inspectors first.
Anschell said CBS lawyers in New Mexico turned to the attorney general because that office has jurisdiction over the entire state, and added that in that correspondence "there was no indication that we were in violation of labor laws."
But in May 1 correspondence obtained Tuesday by The Times, an assistant attorney general had raised skepticism over the CBS lawyers' interpretation of the laws. In a follow-up letter May 24, after production was over, the assistant attorney general wrote that the point was now moot but asked the lawyers to "involve us in the sorting out, in advance, any possible difficulties" in the future.
When the filming of "Kid Nation" ended and the parents picked up their children, producers met with them to discuss what had transpired over the 40 days and what they could expect would happen next. During that meeting, Miles expressed her concerns over the burns and other marks on her child's body.
Although Miles' complaint lists other children's injuries, including fractured bones, none of the children broke any bones, according to Forman, CBS and several of the participants and their parents. One girl sprained her arm, and she and another child were taken to a local emergency room at different times to have X-rays. No other children visited hospitals during the 40 days, he said, not even the four children who accidentally drank bleach from an unmarked bottle.
The parents of a 14-year-old boy, DK of Chicago, said Tuesday that their son was not seriously hurt and did not want to return home when he got sick from drinking bleach. DK was mixing drinks and picked up the wrong bottle, which was unmarked. Three other children sipped the liquid to try to determine what was making him sick, but they spit it out immediately. (CBS did not release participants' last names, nor those of their parents, to protect the children.)
Although the children were not allowed to call home, a producer called parents every three days to offer updates on the children, and a producer called DK's parents immediately after he swallowed the bleach, his parents said.
Children were allowed to leave at any time and, in fact, "a few" did. CBS has declined to specify how many and has denied requests for any of those children to be interviewed.
From the beginning, Forman knew the "provocative" nature of his show, which is scheduled to premiere Sept. 19, would spark controversy.But he said he was "horrified" at the abuse allegations. "Child abuse is a horrendous thing and it disgusts me that people would take that phrase and throw it around so casually."