What does it take to go undercover to investigate suspected wrongdoings?
Inside Edition producer Zara Lockshin was assigned to investigate claims of child labor at businesses owned by a religious sect called the Twelve Tribes. She discovered children as young as 6 working at the group's farm in Cambridge, N.Y.
The findings, which aired last week, were met with shock and outrage, and even sparked an investigation by the New York Department of Labor.
Inside Edition started investigating Twelve Tribes after receiving a tip from a former member about alleged child labor.
"We felt early on that the only way to investigate this group would be to go undercover," Lockshin said.
Lockshin believes her personality — "friendly, open-minded" — and age made her a good fit for the assignment.
"I was kind of young enough to be [someone] searching for their place in the world," she said. "Someone who maybe was looking for a community to belong to. I think I fit that profile."
She traveled upstate to a restaurant run by the group, Yellow Deli, where religious teachings were plastered over the walls of the restroom. This was her way in.
"I went out and said, 'What's going on? What's all that religious text in the bathroom?' Then they started talking to me about it," she said.
When she said she didn't have anywhere to be, they suggested she visit the farm in Cambridge, N.Y. — so she did.
"My goal was to appear as a person a little bit lost in the world," she said. "I was seeing the fall foliage and I was there to learn about this really interesting group of people."
She told the members her name was Rebecca.
"I thought for sure I would slip up in one of the dozens of times I was introduced, I would say, 'Hi, I'm Zara,'" she said. "And I don't know what I would have done in that situation. There is really no way to explain forgetting your own name so that was a bit terrifying."
She didn't change her hair or appearance in any way, but she wore a long-sleeved flannel shirt that disguised recording equipment.
"One wrong movement could have exposed all my wires. That would have been impossible to explain," she said.
She helped clean dishes in the kitchen but spent most of her time working on the farm, picking potatoes.
"I was there to volunteer," she said. "I was there to explore the group — get to know the community — and to do that I volunteered every day."
She recorded the children working beside her. She saw a 6-year-old boy collecting potatoes and struggling with a wheelbarrow. She said she saw a 15-year-old driving a tractor, and a 9-year-old girl covering vegetables with a tarp.
"Seeing the kids working in the farm was heartbreaking because I was there right along with them, I was talking to them, I was doing the work with them and I couldn't stop it," she said.
There was no question in Lockshin's mind that the children were working. "These kids said outright to me directly, 'I do everything on the farm.'"
When it came to leaving the community, she explained she needed to return to the relative she was visiting. But she told her hosts she'd enjoyed her time there, and they said she was welcome to return anytime.
"I didn't know what they would do if they discovered I was a journalist," she said. "I didn't know if they would prevent me from leaving. I didn't know if they would take my camera and destroy the video I had taken."
But she managed to leave without revealing her true identity.
A former member of Twelve Tribes also visited the commune for Inside Edition. When there, she was granted access to a factory, where she saw children packaging products to be sold at well-known retail chains.
On Monday, acting on Inside Edition's report, a team of investigators from the New York State Department of Labor's Worker Protection unit visited the Twelve Tribes' Common Sense Farm in Cambridge.
"The team found multiple violations involving 12 minors who were engaged in factory work, which is prohibited," officials said.
It has now opened cases that could result in fines of tens of thousands of dollars, the department said. It has also educated the owners about child labor standards.
Lockshin said she's glad officials acted on the report.
"To see [the department] actually investigate the Twelve Tribes based on our work is the most gratifying thing a journalist can hear," she said.
The Twelve Tribes denied using child labor. In a statement Tuesday, they said children occasionally spend time with their parents in a shop at the farm.