In 2010, Pennsylvania Rep. Tom Murt watched a TV panel discussion with former child actors led by Paul Petersen, an original Mouseketeer who later appeared on “The Donna Reed Show.”
“To be honest, I felt sorry for them,” said Murt, a Republican. “We've seen so many child actors get in trouble later. They were robbed of their childhood.”
The popular “Jon & Kate Plus 8” reality TV show, starring Jon and Kate Gosselin and their eight children, was filmed from 2007 to 2010 in Pennsylvania. Murt pursued legislation to protect child performers like the Gosselin kids, and legislative hearings disclosed that “Jon & Kate” producers filmed the children changing clothes and going to the bathroom as part of potty training.
“Totally, totally inappropriate,” Murt said.
“We want these film companies to come to Pennsylvania. It means jobs not just for the artists but for carpenters and electricians,” he said. “But if somebody's going to be filming children in Pennsylvania, we want to protect the children.”
Last January, Pennsylvania became the latest state to update its labor laws for child performers with new requirements for work permits, on-set teachers, special trust accounts and limits on work hours.
When minors sell T-shirts at the mall or flip burgers at a fast food restaurant, their employment falls under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 for minimum wage, overtime, work hours and other conditions. But these provisions don't apply to child performers and child farm workers because of the FLSA's so-called “Shirley Temple Act” exemptions.
States that want to protect young entertainers working in movies, television shows or commercials have to pass their own child entertainment laws, and 32 states have done so. The laws range from simply requiring a young performer to get consent from the state labor commissioner to setting maximum hours per day and week a child performer may work.
Eighteen states have no laws to protect child performers. Only about half the states require work permits for child performers, and some only for kids under age 14 or 16.
As a consequence, rules for child performers vary widely. Pennsylvania's previous law prohibited children under 7 from appearing on TV but not in movies, although no one was sure why. In Kansas, newborns can't work until they're 15 days old. Nevada casinos that hire child entertainers for more than 91 school days must provide tutors or other educational services – but only on request.
A handful of states require that parents set aside 15 percent of their child performer's income in trust accounts, called Coogan accounts after an early child actor, Jackie Coogan, whose mother and stepfather spent his fortune before he reached adulthood. They are California, New York, New Mexico, Louisiana and now Pennsylvania.
Laws or not, parents remain the first line of defense for their children. Beauty contestant Alana Thompson, 8, stars in the reality TV show, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” The show reportedly makes $20,000 an episode for the family. Honey Boo Boo and her family live in Georgia, a state that does not require trust accounts for child stars.
June Shannon, Alana's mother, announced in January that she had voluntarily set up trust funds for her four daughters and granddaughter.
“I want my kids to look back and say, `Mama played it smart. Not like those other reality TV people,'” Shannon told TMZ.
The entertainment business is concentrated in California and New York, and they have the most robust child entertainer laws. States have an economic motive in pursuing movie and television production. Forty-five states now offer tax credits and other incentives to attract production crews. The rise of reality TV shows with child players has raised new questions of exploitation.
Film director and producer Alfred Hitchcock once described actors as cattle. “That would make child actors veal,” said former child actor Mara Wilson, star of the movies “Matilda,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and the remake of “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Wilson, 26, began acting at age 5 and left Hollywood at 13. In a recent article, she listed pitfalls facing child actors, including parents who push their children, sexual abusers in the entertainment industry and laws that don't go far enough to protect underage actors' earnings.
“The Coogan law isn't perfect,” Wilson wrote. “There are still lots of ways parents can misuse their kid's money.”
For states, writing laws to protect child actors can be a balancing act. “We don't want to chase away the industry,” Murt said. Pennsylvania recently extended its $60 million-a-year package of film and TV production incentives until 2018. One measure that didn't make it into Pennsylvania's law because of industry push-back, he said, was background checks for entertainment industry professionals who work with minors.
After years of silence, former child actors have been speaking out about pedophilia. Corey Feldman appeared in a McDonald's commercial at age 3 and starred in “Stand By Me” and other box office hits as a child.
“I can tell you that the No. 1 problem in Hollywood was and is and always will be pedophilia,” Feldman said in an interview on ABC News' “Nightline.” “I was surrounded by (them) when I was 14 years old. … Didn't even know it.”
Todd Bridges, a former child actor who starred in the television sitcom “Diff'rent Strokes,” told CNN last year of being molested at 11 by his publicist.
California Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed the nation's first law requiring permits, background checks and fingerprinting of managers and other professionals who work directly with minors in the movie business.
The New York legislature approved a measure in June to add fashion models under 18 to labor law coverage of child actors, dancers and musicians. The new law means that fashion designers and magazines will need to get work permits for minors and document their working hours or face fines.
States without child performer laws, and some with weak enforcement capability, rely on the watchful eye of SAG-AFTRA, formerly the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The union's collective bargaining agreements specify working conditions for young performers and its field reps monitor production.
“There have been a lot of abuses of child performers in the past,” said Jeffrey Bennett, deputy general counsel of SAG-AFTRA. The union worked with Pennsylvania on the overhaul of its child labor law, and Bennett hopes to do the same in other states.
Pennsylvania's new law covers children in reality shows. Murt first envisioned an update of only the child performer rules, but bipartisan support in the legislature pushed for an overhaul of the entire law covering all workers under 18, regardless of occupation.
In Pennsylvania, workers under 18 need work permits, which they can get at school. Those under 16 need parental and school approval. Minors must be accompanied by a parent or guardian on the set; the employer must provide a teacher if a shoot lasts more than two days and minors can't work more than eight hours a day or 48 hours a week.
In April 2007, CBS began filming “Kid Nation,” a reality show that placed 40 children ages 8 to 15 in a ghost town in the New Mexico desert for 40 days without adult supervision. Then-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson signed a child performer law two days after filming began. The lengthy contracts the parents had signed before the law's enactment, included waivers for any harm that might occur. In lieu of salaries, each child received a $5,000 stipend at the end. They could also win $20,000 in contests during the show.
New Mexico now requires work permits for children under 16 and the work must be certified as not dangerous. Kids under 16 may work a maximum of 18 hours during school weeks, and 40 hours during non-school weeks. The state also requires teachers on the set.
Former child actor Petersen works for more stringent state laws as president of the advocacy group, A Minor Consideration.
“We're protecting animals in movies far better than the children,” said Petersen, who points out that movies carry a disclaimer that no animals were harmed, but there's no such notice for children.