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Little stars, big child labor laws drama

Nadya Suleman inked a TV deal for all 14 of her kids, and Pennsylvania is probing whether the Gosselins’ show complies with child labor laws. All this underscores an important issue: If publicity-hungry parents aren't always looking out for their kids best interests, who is?
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Now that Nadya Suleman, better known as Octomom, has inked a TV deal for all 14 of her children, she might want to take a close look at another reality show that owes its success to a large brood—the Pennsylvania Department of Labor is currently looking into whether the hit reality show "Jon & Kate Plus 8" is complying with the state's child labor law. All of this underscores an important issue that tends to slip through the tabloid headlines. If publicity-hungry parents aren't always looking out for their kids best interests, who is?

The answer varies depending on what state the show is filming in. Suleman and her children live in California, while the Gosselins call Pennsylvania home. According to Kelly Scott, head of the Employment Law Division at Ervin Cohen & Jessup in Beverly Hills, child labor laws generally apply to reality show kids in California, though every state has different laws, which have not all caught up with the reality TV craze. Pennsylvania laws, for example, "say you have to get a permit for a kid seven years of age and up, and that's when they can start working in the entertainment field," Scott tells iVillage.

But six of the eight Gosselin kids are only five years old. Does that mean being filmed around the clock for "Jon & Kate Plus 8" might not qualify as working in the entertainment field? If not, then technically parents Jon and Kate Gosselin aren't working either, despite receiving hefty paychecks—between $25,000 and $75,000—for each episode. There is, however, a case to be made that the Gosselin kids aren't actually subject to child labor laws. "I think the argument here is that they're in their own home. They're not doing anything other than what they'd ordinarily be doing, or so we're told," says Scott. "And is that really working? Should the laws apply? I think that's what the Pennsylvania Labor Department has to look at. I think for them it's really the first time they've had to look at that."

Others aren't as likely to play devil's advocate. Stuart Shapiro, a partner at Cohen & Lombardo, P.C. in Buffalo, NY, feels that by appearing on the show, the kids are doing work. "The reason money is changing hands is because of these kids, so the parents aren't getting a gift. There has to be work involved," he says. "It's very hard for anybody to argue that when you're doing this number of episodes and featuring the kids and featuring their images, that they're not really providing an entertainment service."

The child labor guidelines facing Octomom, however, are more clearly delineated. Because her kids' work will fall under the California child labor laws, 15 percent of the children's earnings must go into a special fund called a "Coogan Account." That requirement came out of a 1935 case involving a child star named Jackie Coogan—a Los Angeles actor who had been discovered by Charlie Chaplin. Cougan sued his mother and stepfather whom he claimed had spent most of the millions he earned on luxuries for themselves like diamonds and cars. He won the case, but only got $126,000 after legal expenses. Coogan Accounts are currently only required in California, New York, Louisiana and New Mexico. A financial guardian has been appointed to oversee the remaining 85 percent of the Suleman kids' earnings. However, Scott explained that Suleman could still access that money "for the caring of and well being of the minor(s)." How much she can withdraw for those purposes is unclear. Monetarily, at least, it seems her children are more protected than the Gosselins, merely because they live in California.

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Of course, it's not just about the money. Octomom already finds herself fending off one law suit by a child labor activist. And nobody knows yet how these reality shows will affect the lives of the children who star in them. From the TV show cameras—which are currently capturing the Gosselin's divorce—to the endless paparazzi attention, they're in the constant spotlight. Kathleen McKee, a professor at Regent University's Law School in Virginia, worries about the Gosselins in particular. "Why are these children less entitled to protection than any other children?" she asks. "They can't say, 'No, I don't want somebody to come in to my home. No, I don't want anybody to film me.' They're vulnerable. There is a certain level of exploitation going on. There wouldn't be a program with just Kate and Jon. It's because of the children that it has marketability."

California, on the other hand, has strict rules for kids in entertainment. According to Scott, issues like "lighting, how long they're in the lights, how many minutes they can work, if there has to be a nurse present when you have a certain number of infants, when you have to have a studio teacher present, when the guardian has to be present and when permits are required" are all regulated, protecting kids from any potential exploitation. Going forward, production companies will more likely make similar efforts to take the kids into account. "I think with the increased regulation and the possibility that you've got these advocacy groups out there that did not exist before, that you'll see less of that kind of stuff," says Shapiro. "There's going to be more control over it at the basic level."