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Twelve Tribes Religious Group Investigated for Child Labor Law Violations

Aired May 29, 2001 - 22:43   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: In our cover story tonight, growing up, many of us had jobs as young teenagers but one religious group is now coming under fire for it. Some say their using their kids to do adult work and that, they say, is against the law. CNN's Deborah Feyerick has our story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Twenty-one year-old Yoshiyah (ph) Jones was born and raised in Twelve Tribes, a tight-knit religious community in Upstate New York which believes kids should work with their parents, making things like candles, soap, furniture.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maybe we'd work all together maybe in one of our soap shops, like we had small shops in Island Pond and packing soap or maybe dipping candles. But that didn't really happen until I was about 10.

FEYERICK: Yoshiyah worked in several of the family-type businesses, which support 25 small communities worldwide. With beliefs grounded in the old and new testaments, Twelve Tribes says they are the chosen people. To join, members give up money, property, and most contact with the outside world.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People can say if you give up everything you're in a cult. But most people don't have something worth giving everything up for.

FEYERICK: Religious scholars describe Twelve Tribes as a high- control group.

ROBERT PARDON, N.E. INSTITUTE OF RELIGIOUS RESEARCH: This is not a group that endangers anyone's physical health. However, having said that, this group does exert incredible control over those who are part of the membership.

FEYERICK: Few people would have heard about twelve tribes, but recently, makeup giant Estee Lauder ended a 5-year-old business deal with the group. A spokesman saying a "routine inspection" found Twelve Tribes "not in full compliance with respect to its employment practices." Twelve Tribes called the alleged violation, which involved two 14-year-old boys, an isolated incident. BRIAN FENSTER, TWELVE TRIBES: There were a couple of boys working in the shop beyond what is our normal practice and policy.

FEYERICK: Reports of the incident were enough to scare off Robert Redford, citing a "zero tolerance policy" for child labor, Redford's Sundance catalog pulled ads for furniture the group makes and sells under the Commonwealth label. Then the New York State Labor Department sent out investigators.

LINDA ANGELLO, LABOR COMMISSIONER: In New York state the labor law says that children are not to be on the work sites.

FEYERICK: Period?

ANGELLO: Period.

FEYERICK: Twelve Tribes denied the work was beyond what a child might do in a family-run business.

FENSTER: Our children are not oppressed by child labor. We deny such allegations as false, unfounded and slanderous.

FEYERICK: But ex-member Laurie Morano-Johnson says by the time one of her two sons was 13, he was in the soap factory.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He was a full-fledged crew member at age 13 or 14, doing a man's work, and there was no question about it.

FEYERICK: Morano-Johnson ultimately went to court, winning full custody of her boys from her husband, a member of Twelve Tribes. Her memory is still painful. She says the group goes beyond child labor to child abuse.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: For one of my sons it was being pent up in a closet. It was 24 hours. And it was food brought into the closet, things like that. If that was an isolated incident, what I think for people need to know is that these are not isolated incidents. And these are my children, they are not isolated children. This is a norm of everyday.

FEYERICK: Twelve Tribes denies those allegations and says it does not condone that kind of punishment. But it has been accused of child abuse in the past. In 1984, the compound in Vermont was raided by local authorities. More than 100 children, including Yoshiah Jones, were taken into protective custody then released. No charges proven, says longtime member and spokesperson Jean Swantko (ph) .

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's never been any finding of child abuse or neglect on any part of any part of our communities.

FEYERICK: Not in the U.S., but in France earlier this year, a husband and wife in Twelve Tribes were convicted of failing to provide medical care to their 19-month-old son. The boy died of malnutrition and a treatable heart condition. Swantko (ph) says the couple, not the community, were found guilty, adding, children are well treated. But she does admit corporal punishment, like hitting, is accepted. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We use sound wisdom and discretion. We use a small balloon stick that's thin and flexible. And we spank children on the hand or the bottom to teach them respect.

FEYERICK (on camera): How do you explain hitting a child with a rod?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It never leaves permanent, damage, like I said. It's just a sting to cause a child to wake up to hearken to his father's command.

FEYERICK (voice-over): But the command to work is one the Labor Department doesn't buy.

ANGELLO: There are no religious exemptions in our labor law -- none.

FEYERICK (on camera): Leaders of the Twelve Tribes say they don't fault Sundance or Estee Lauder for pulling out of their business contracts. The leaders say they make no apologies for their belief that work is an important part of a child's upbringing.

Would a child like that ever operate a machine like this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They wouldn't even have a clue to know what to do.

FEYERICK (voice-over): Twelve Tribes elder Bob Racine won't say how much the Estee Lauder contract was worth, only that it was a "substantial amount."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't pretend to know that we've known every jot and tittle of the letter of the law, but our confidence has been that we feel that we are within the spirit of the law.

FEYERICK: What the law says is that no one under 16 is allowed in factories. Not even putting a label on a box?

ANGELLO: No.

FEYERICK (on camera): Not even rolling a candle?

ANGELLO: No.

FEYERICK: Not even being there? Can they be there?

ANGELLO: They're not even supposed to be in the facility.

FEYERICK (voice-over): So why are they there?

BOB RACINE, TWELVE TRIBES ELDER: We believe it to be the best environment for the children to be occupied with their parents, not wasting their free time on empty amusement and dissipation.

FEYERICK: For Yoshiyah Jones and his bride, who have known little else of the world outside Twelve Tribes, it's a way of life they embrace and intend for their new family.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is my home. This is where I'll be for the rest of my life. This is where my children will be.

FEYERICK: Deborah Feyerick, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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