Here is a comprehensive overview of film production child welfare laws and labor laws.
Employment for Minors
Employment for minors is a difficult legal line to walk, no matter what the field. Film production work is especially difficult because they tend to be project to project, payment is often vacant or deferred and many non-professionals are used in lower level work. This presents an issue with child welfare laws that are designed to protect children from exploitation. They can force you to keep up standard business practices when you were planning to forgo them in other areas of your production. Here are a few things to look at when considering child welfare laws and child labor laws in film production.
State by State
Child welfare laws tend to vary by state, so there are going to be specifics that you must follow for each state. For example, New York State requires you to pay a child in a very official way even if the project is not necessarily going to make money. This does not mean that you can just issue their parents a check that is negotiated. Instead, you have to hire an independent payroll company that will then create a trust fund for that child. The trust fund will only be accessible by that child after a specified age, and not the parents. The reason that this law was enacted was that many parents were exploiting their working children by keeping the money they earned.
Those producing a film have to pay the child through this arrangement even if they are not doing so for the rest of the cast. There is not always a pay requirement, unless they are working with SAG or according to other types of work regulations, but it has to be significant enough that a payroll company will handle it based on the percentage they will receive of the payment sum. This situation is not exclusive to New York. There are versions in different capacities all around the country, with California's being some of the strictest because of the high rate of film employment.
Since every state is different, you have to find out what your state requires before you even enter a full period of pre-production. Determine the hours they can work, what kinds of things they will not be allowed to do, what type of educational and medical services must be offered, and so on. This will all have to be accounted for and you may want to have your Line Producer put it in your deliverables package.
Parents are necessary for film production with children, and this is defined clearly in all of the child welfare laws. In general, a child under the age of 16 will have to have a parent present for their active production and you will not be allowed to have children on set independent of this. Between the ages of 16 and 18, you will have a little more freedom, but you still have to be aware of the hours to which they will be restricted. Having the parent around consistently is also a great benefit to the production, as you will need them for other things, such as signing photo release forms for the employed minor.
Permit to Employ Minors
Though it is also a state-by-state issue, other states will require you to have a permit to employ minors as dictated by their child labor laws. This means that your production has to be up to par in a whole range of areas, so much so that you can appeal to a government agency that will specifically approve you according to the child labor laws. If this is the case, the Producer and Line Producer will have to be keenly aware of that state's child welfare laws and child labor laws so that they can curtail the schedule, script notes, production plans and all other documentation to the legality of the situation.
Child welfare laws are different from child labor laws, and you will find that child welfare laws are in place to protect the child from exploitation and abuse in commercial as well as non-commercial settings. The content of films using child actors needs to be looked at from a sensitive standpoint, understanding that asking children to participate in certain types of projects is going to be difficult and likely irresponsible. This has caused issues with many teenage actors who have taken roles that have a certain amount of explicit content, and it can cause problems allowing the film to continue. Look at what films have been produced in a given state and try to use these as a barometer of what will be considered acceptable by the community.
Source: Author's own experience