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June 28, 2003

Protecting Child Performers' Rights

By Nicole Flender, Chair Young Performers' Committee

A child's acting career will no longer be child's play thanks to the New York Child Performers Education and Trust Act of 2003. As the new Chair of the Young Performers committee, I accompanied staff representative Willie Boston along with representatives from SAG and AFTRA to Albany on June 3rd for a day of lobbying with Senate sponsor of the bill, Senator Guy Velella, Chair of Senate Labor Committee and Assembly sponsor, Helene Weinstein, chair of the Assembly Judiciary committee; Susan John, chair of the Assembly Labor committee, and Steven Sanders, Chair of the Assembly Education Committee. The New York Child Performers Education and Trust Act of 2003 protects the rights of child performers and is patterned after the Coogan Act currently in effect in California.

Larry Scherer, SAG's lobbyist, whisked us through the legislative maze of buildings from appointment to appointment with Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senator Velella, and various assemblymembers. Paul Petersen, a former Mouseketeer and "Donna Reed" show child star and Robert Lydiard, a former child model spoke persuasively of the need for legislative child protection, citing exploitation from family members and employers in the entertainment industry.

Undoubtedly the most persuasive lobbyists were the child performers who accompanied us on the trip: Samantha Browne-Walters, Ricky Ashly, Julianna Mauriello and Alyssa May Gold. Articulate and quick-witted (not to mention cute), Alyssa adroitly related how a California minor's education protection through the Coogan Act followed her to a film set in North Carolina benefiting all the minors on the set who ultimately got tutored. Equally compelling was her story of being forced to leave the Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus because they did not provide a tutor during the numerous daytime rehearsals. Julianna's mom reinforced the need for the education stipulation in the act when she related that her daughter had missed 35 days of school for the Broadway production of "Oklahoma!" and was technically at risk for being held back according to current guidelines.

As we walked from conference room to conference room, it was clear to me that we were among friends. The overwhelming feedback was unmitigated support to protect our child performer's incomes and provide them with the best education possible.

In a nutshell, the Education and Trust Act has three parts. It establishes, for the first time, that a small portion of a child's earnings, 15%, must be held in a trust account for them until their 18th birthday. On the education front, employers must provide a teacher who is either New York State certified or has credentials recognized by the state to any child performer who cannot attend school due to his or her employment. Equity currently approximates this in its collective bargaining agreement with producers, but it is not mandated legally. Just as important, the child performers will not be marked absent from school while working. Parents will be responsible for getting work permits for their children, renewable after six months. Employers will apply, with a fee, to the labor department for certificates of eligibility lasting three years.

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