Kid Nation's Disturbing Untold Truth

There have been some pretty extreme reality shows over the years, but perhaps the wildest was Kid Nation, a short-lived 2007 CBS program that brought 40 children to the New Mexico desert for 40 days without adult intervention.

The children were sent to "Bonanza," a fake wild west town established on a film lot in Santa Fe. The idea was to create a child-led society (for the cameras, of course.) The kids, ranging in age from 8 to 15, had to live like pioneers. They had no running water and had to haul in their supplies by wagon, bury their own trash, prepare all their own meals, and clean their latrines. They were supervised by production staff but were supposed to handle everything related to daily life on their own.

So let's get this straight: A reality show left a bunch of kids on a wild west movie set to fend for themselves for 40 days? What could possibly go wrong?

A lot. Several children drank bleach, while another was burned in the face by hot grease while cooking. New Mexico state officials reported that the production may have violated laws; Hollywood labor unions protested; and at least one parent complained about her child's treatment. 

Read on for the full story of what really happened on Kid Nation.

Children allegedly drank bleach while filming

One month before the show premiered on CBS, The New York Times reported that, according to an anonymous letter and a parent complaint, several children accidentally drank bleach. According to the Times, the children required medical attention.

The show's executive producer, Tom Forman, confirmed the bleach-drinking incident to the Today show in 2007, but he defended his production, saying that accidents like that could happen "in any kitchen, in any school, in any home, in any camp."

A Chicago mom named Daphne, whose 14-year-old son, DK, was one of the children who drank the bleach, didn't seem too upset by it. She explained to Today that the bleach had been used while DK was mixing a soda drink, but that he felt just fine after drinking it. She ultimately thought the show had been a positive experience for her son, noting that he'd gotten the chance to get to know people from different backgrounds.

Meanwhile, a 14-year-old child named Michael who participated in the show told Today, "I never for one instant felt uncomfortable or unsafe."

Parents agreed not to sue if their children died

Parents of the children who appeared on the show signed away many rights in order for their kids to participate, according to The New York Times.

As payment for their appearance, the kids were promised a $5,000 stipend, which was to be withheld until all episodes of the season finished airing. In order for their children to participate and be paid, all of the parents reportedly signed a contract agreeing not to hold CBS liable "if their children died or were injured, if they received inadequate medical care, or if their housing was unsafe and caused injury."

The contract also reportedly stipulated that the production would not be responsible if any of the children, all under the age of 16 at the time of filming, got pregnant or contracted HIV during production.

Children participated in a number of ostensibly risky scenarios while filming, including pulling heavy wagons, carrying buckets of water long distances, digging deep holes to bury garbage, and cooking their own meals. 

The show owns the children's life stories 'in perpetuity'

Signing away your life story ... before you are even 18? Who knew that was even possible, but that's what happened with the children of Kid Nation, according to the 22-page contract that participants and their parents signed.

According to the deal, the production companies would own the life stories of the participants "in perpetuity and throughout the universe." And it also stipulated that the kids might not even be portrayed accurately, allowing producers to make edits "to achieve a humorous or satirical effect." The children were to be paid $5,000 for participating but would not be considered employees, according to the document, which was obtained by The New York Times.

Other interesting items in the agreement included a stipulation that the kids had to do whatever the producers asked at all times or get kicked out, and these tykes also had to sign a confidentiality agreement that came with a $5 million penalty if it was violated. A representative for the Screen Actors Guild looked over the contract and told the Los Angeles Times, "It's been a long time since we've seen such egregious provisions for any performer, let alone children."

Kids had to fight pigs in a vat of beans

On fellow CBS reality shows Survivor and The Amazing Race, contestants participate in physically grueling challenges in order to win prizes or advance in the game. The contestants on Kid Nation participated in similar activities.

For one challenge, children were required to get into a giant vat of beans that was packed with live pigs and search for submerged cans. The process was extremely messy, and one child said of the beans and wriggling pigs, "That was the worst smell I've ever smelled in my life." 

The children were reportedly motivated to participate by winning a prize of their choice — either dune buggies or fruits and vegetables. Every kid on earth would choose the dune buggies, right? 

Not these kids. In a poignant moment, after going without fresh produce for weeks, the kids chose the food. One child exclaimed, "This is like heaven," while eating a raw ear of corn, still covered in baked beans from the challenge.

Another participant said in a Reddit AMA several years later that he'd had the urge to tell the show's host, "How about you try and get in this vat of beans and fight pigs?"

The production may have violated state law

Days after the show wrapped filming, an anonymous letter was reportedly sent to state officials in New Mexico describing hazardous situations that had allegedly occurred on Kid Nation, including the aforementioned bleach-drinking incident. A few weeks later, Janis Miles, parent of an 11-year-old participant named Divad, sent her own letter to state officials, alleging that her daughter had been burned in the face by hot grease while cooking without adult supervision, according to The New York Times.

The state of New Mexico requires that facilities that house children be inspected and licensed, but a state official told the Times that it was never contacted prior to or during filming. "This type of setting, with 40 kids away from their parents for an extended time, would have required some notice and work prior to actually bringing the children into the state," said Romaine Serna of the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department.

Serna suspected that "the project almost assuredly violated state laws." She added that if her office had been contacted when the bleach and burning incidents occurred, it "would have responded and would have assured the children's safety."

CBS issued a statement prior to the show's premiere saying that when injuries occurred, the children "were all treated immediately and by professionals." The statement added, "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."

Hollywood labor unions protested conditions

Before the show even premiered, Hollywood labor unions, including the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America, spoke out about the way the children were treated.

An official at WGA West, Jeff Hermanson, told the Los Angeles Times, "To me, [reality TV] is the sweatshop of the entertainment industry." He continued, "What's happened with Kid Nation is typical and universal, but then it's that much worse because it's about children."

A representative for the Screen Actors Guild said many members of the industry and the public "called and yelled ... because they were really appalled at the way these kids were treated."

"We have a lot of people who are very upset about this show," the SAG rep said. "There may be action down the line to let the network know that people are unhappy about the treatment of children and how it's reflected in the series."

The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (then separate from SAG) also announced an investigation into the treatment of children on the show. 

One of the kids allegedly stole a phone to call her parents

The children were not allowed to contact their parents during the 40 days of filming, and as you might guess, it was hard on them. One little boy, 8-year-old Jimmy, quit the show four days in after tearfully revealing that he missed his parents and thought he was too young to be on his own. He later told CBS News, "I got really homesick," adding, "It was really, really cold ... I missed my own bed."

It's totally understandable that, given the opportunity, the kids might attempt to bend the rules and talk to their parents. In a Reddit AMA, participant Michael revealed that 14-year-old Sophia allegedly stole a crew member's phone to call her parents. "That was awesome but they were pissed off about it," Michael said, calling Sophia's move "bad***."

Showers were a rarity

It's usually up to parents to make sure that their children bathe regularly, but the children on Kid Nation had no parents there to tell them to shower. Even more significantly, they had no access to running water and had to transport water in buckets from a well.

Contestant Sophia told Entertainment Weekly, "We could only bring three outfits, no toothbrush. We were dirty, we were gross, we got used to it. We learned, running our own world, that physical appearances didn't matter so much anymore." Contestant Michael agreed, telling EW, "I was filthy and smelled disgusting."

But it turns out that the producers did bend the rules sometimes, like when they required the children to participate in messy challenges (e.g. the aforementioned pig and baked beans ordeal.) In a 2014 Reddit AMA, Michael dished, "If a challenge required us to get really nasty, we were allowed access to mobile showers." How generous.

On a good day, the crew snuck you a snack. On a bad day, you killed for it

The children of Bonanza prepared all of their own food, and in one instance, even slaughtered it – the kids killed chickens to eat.

But some of the crew must have been concerned about the children's food situation because one participant reported that crew members would secretly give him food from time to time. In a Reddit AMA, Michael said, "The crew members really liked me, so they would drop off food in my sleeping bag." 

That wasn't the only thing the crew allegedly snuck the kids. Michael revealed that he even got a peek at what was happening in the outside world courtesy of the production staff. "One of the sound technicians dropped off her iPod for the night once so I could listen to the new Shins album," he said.

Michael reported that getting hooked up by the crew was his "favorite part of the show." 

Producers treated the kids like 'trash'

In the episode "Bonanza is Disgusting," a central storyline revolved around the children relocating a giant pile of garbage and debris. The trash had allegedly accumulated naturally and included rotting food, wooden boards, and glass bottles. 

"I don't think it's even safe to breathe in," a young girl said of the mess. "It seems hazardous to me," another boy mused.

The children banded together to shovel the trash into a wagon, haul it out to the desert, and bury it. It was grueling manual labor that would have even been challenging for adults, but a 14-year-old contestant named Sophia had this to say about the experience: "It was nasty, it was disgusting, it was smelly, but we got it done."

But contestant Michael made a shocking claim in a 2014 Reddit AMA: He said that the garbage pile had actually been planted by the producers. "We had been disposing of trash ourselves efficiently up to that point. They bought trash and dumped it in the town, then told us we had to take care of our 'massive trash problem,'" he said.

Michael elaborated in an interview with Cracked. "Clearly this was an episode idea they'd had from the beginning, and they'd probably figured it was a safe assumption that a bunch of kids couldn't keep their own town any cleaner than their bedroom floor. Instead, we wound up with a bunch of reality show producers dumping trash everywhere."