Weeks before the debut of Kid Nation — a reality show featuring 40 children on their own in the high desert of New Mexico — questions are being raised about possible child endangerment and neglect on the set.
When the show was filmed earlier this year in New Mexico, the state's Department of Labor tried to adhere to guidelines set by the Screen Actors Guild regarding children on film and television sets.
The rules stipulate that children can work a limited number of hours and are to be schooled by a certified teacher on site.
But a state official says the department's inspectors were not allowed to visit the set.
Carlos Castaneda, a spokesman for New Mexico's Department of Labor, says when his office got word that there was a production involving children working long hours, an inspector tried to visit the set three times. But the network, he says, maintained it was not a television production.
"It was considered a summer camp by CBS," Castaneda says, even though the show's promotion trailer says the children are hauling water cleaning latrines, cooking meal and washing dishes.
"That limited our authority and jurisdiction on some of the events that were taking place," Castaneda says.
By calling the production a summer camp and not paying the children wages the network argued it was exempt from the state's labor laws, he says.
The New York Times has reported that, after the production wrapped, an anonymous letter was sent to various state officials alleging that there were a couple incidents in which children in the show required medical attention.
In one, several children accidentally ingested bleach. A letter from a mother of one of the children backed up the complaints.
CBS turned down our request for an interview, but the network released a statement stating there were paramedics and a pediatrician on the set.
"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 says.
The 40 kids spent 40 days in what is billed as a New Mexico ghost town. In fact, it is a 10,000-acre, working cattle ranch and historic western movie set.
Imogene Hughes, the ranch's 70-year-old owner, says she never heard of any problems on the set.
The children's parents signed an extensive release and waiver for the show's producers.
Cindy Osbrink, a Los Angeles agent who has represented children in the industry for more than 14 years, says parents have to be the responsible party when turning their children over to the entertainment industry.
"It's a business, so to think they had the children's best well being? I'm sure they did in their hearts, but it's not about your child. It's about the money. It's about making money and making a successful show," she says.
Kid Nation debuts next month, and CBS has already held two open auditions for the show's sequel. Hundreds of children and their parents turned out.