A CBS reality series in which youngsters run their own town has prompted complaints from one of the children's parents, and may have skirted New Mexico's child-protection laws.
"Kid Nation," slated to premiere Sept. 19, was filmed over 40 days during April and May in a movie-set town in the high desert just south of Santa Fe.
While parents and children made available by CBS praised the production as safe, well-supervised and a learning experience, one mother has told authorities the conditions warrant an abuse investigation.
Janis Miles of Fayetteville, Ga., said in a letter that her 12-year-old daughter, Divad Miles, was spattered on her face with grease while cooking potatoes on a wood stove, and that four other children required medical attention after they accidentally drank bleach.
Her daughter also had a rash that had caused scarring, and sunburn on her face and hands, Miles wrote.
Miles declined to talk to a reporter, referring calls to CBS.
Tom Forman, the show's executive producer, confirmed the grease-spattering and bleach-sipping incidents, but called them the kinds of accidents that can happen "in any kitchen, in any school, in any home, in any camp" and said that the children immediately got medical attention.
Forman said adults were present at all times during the production, ready to step in.
CBS said paramedics, a pediatrician, an animal safety expert, a child psychologist and a "roster of producers" were onsite, too. Children were required to arrange with their school districts to make up missed work, the network said.
"There's an unhappy parent, and in retrospect it was probably a bad match. ... This seems to be a parent who regrets the decision to sign her child up for Kid Nation," Forman said.
The children in the show, ages 8-15, hauled water, prepared meals, elected a government and passed laws.
"The whole concept of the show is 40 kids who build a world of their own," Forman said.
The children are to be paid $5,000 apiece when the series airs, and one child per episode was awarded a solid-gold star by the town's elected government worth $20,000, Forman said.
Miles complained to a sheriff in Georgia in June, and her letter was forwarded to Santa Fe County Sheriff Greg Solano, who said his office investigated and found "no prosecutable evidence of neglect or abuse."
"I never for one instant felt uncomfortable or unsafe," said Michael, a 14-year-old participant who lives near Seattle. "We did do some physical work, but it wasn't like we were chained to water buckets all day."
According to documents obtained from the New Mexico attorney general's office, parents signed a 22-page agreement in which they waived their rights to sue the network or production company if their children died or were injured. The agreement also acknowledged that the participants "will have no privacy," except while using bathrooms or changing rooms.
"The series was filmed responsibly and within all applicable laws in the state of New Mexico at the time of the production," CBS said in a statement.
Daphne, a Chicago mother, said her 14-year-old son, DK, accidentally used bleach when he was mixing a soda drink but felt fine after he tasted it. She said the show was an opportunity for her son to meet kids from other backgrounds.
State officials were largely unaware that the production was under way on the privately owned Bonanza Creek Movie Ranch. The state Film Office knew a "highly confidential" TV reality show would be shot there, but the office required no permits for it.
There are "congregate care" state licensing requirements when children are in group settings, according to the Children, Youth and Families Department, which didn't learn of the production until it was over.
New Mexico's child labor laws were changed as of June 15 to mirror California's requirements for child actors, because of the burgeoning film industry in the state.
But labor laws were in force during the filming, restricting the types of work children could do and hours they could work, and mandating work permits.
Lawyers for Good TV, Inc., the show's producer, told state officials that the "Kid Nation" children were not actors but rather were "volunteer contestants/participants" not required to have work permits.
The state Attorney General's office disputed the production company's interpretation but said the issue was moot because filming had concluded and any future productions would fall under the new law.
New Mexico has been promoting itself as a film location and 16 film or television productions are in the works right now, said the Film Office's director, Lisa Strout.
"This was our first experience with reality TV," said Strout, who said it was "questionable" whether the production complied with applicable state laws. "There's not any precedent to rely on. ... It's a breed unto itself that the whole industry is really looking at."