July 23, 2009— -- Elizabeth Roberts' 17-year-old daughter was put through the bureaucratic wringer to get a summer job in her home state of Rhode Island this year.
Under state law, the teenager could not operate a power saw, work on ladders or even pump gas. The state also regulates how many hours and times of day minors can work.
But in Rhode Island, where Roberts is lieutenant governor, the teen -- with a work permit -- can take off all her clothes at a strip club, even those where adult men can touch the merchandise.
This spring, while investigating a 16-year-old runaway who had been working at one of Providence's notorious strip clubs, police discovered that they could not prosecute, because there were no local or state laws barring teens from working in the city's thriving adult entertainment business.
"To think that any minor could just as easily be employed as a stripper is mind-boggling," Roberts said. "This must end immediately."
In other parts of the country, even in Las Vegas, there are age limits on strippers, according to the report.
"When I saw yesterday's paper, I had a visceral reaction -- it's an outrage that we would ever have allowed this to happen -- that anyone would hire a young person we are meant to protect," Roberts told ABCNews.com.
"Everyone was completely shocked to learn it wasn't against the law," she said. "None of us was aware of it."
The 16-year-old runaway had been working at Cheaters, described by the Boston Strip Club Directory as "dark and dirty."
Cheaters refused to comment to ABCNews.com.
"You get more contact here talking to a woman at the bar than you do in most clubs during a lap dance, and in the private rooms, anything goes for probably half the women working there, and the others will still make sure you leave happy," reported one of its customers.
Now, amidst the embarrassing publicity in a state that has one of the highest unemployment rates and a reputation for corruption, Roberts is supporting a bill introduced by state Rep. Joanne Giannini, D-Providence, that would close that loophole.
Notorious Strip Clubs in Staid New England
Providence's seven or eight strip clubs are notorious around otherwise staid New England.
When the Fraternal Order of Police comes to town for their annual convention, buses were hired to transport members to the strip clubs, according to local social historian Scott McKay.
When NFL teams come to the Patriots' Foxboro, Mass., stadium, they stay closer to Rhode Island so they can have evening entertainment, according to McKay.
Founded by religious dissidents, some say the state -- which is not really an island -- is quick to forgive. During his three-decade tenure as mayor Providence, Vincent "Buddy" Cianci, served two prison sentences. One of the prison terms came after he was convicted of throwing a burning log at a man he suspected of having an affair with his wife.
Rhode Island has always been staunchly independent; its founder Puritan Roger Williams bucked government intervention, famously admonishing, "Forced religion stinks in the nostrils of God."
Inconsistencies in Rhode Island law would allow teens to turn to prostitution, providing it's done indoors -- in a hotel room, club or private home. Prostitution is only illegal when the solicitation is done outdoors.
"You see it on a daily basis on Craig's List, pictures of girls with hourly rates," said Major Thomas Oates, who is in charge of the Providence Police Department's investigative unit. "It's about as open as you can get."
But a 16-year-old cannot drive without an adult in the car, and those under 18 cannot buy pornography or alcohol. It is also illegal to photograph or film minors in sexually suggestive ways.
Oddly, an 18-year-old can sit at a bar, but not drink, according to Oates.
"I am 53 and a native and it's gotten a lot quirkier over the last 10 or 15 years," he told ABCNews.com. "Just from a law enforcement point of view, we have been complaining about the disparities for years."
The General Assembly, which is not currently in session, has stalled on other legislation that would ban prostitution and sex trafficking.
Bill to Ban Teen Strippers Introduced
Giannini introduced her bill to ban minors from stripping after learning about the 16-year-old who was working in one of the Providence clubs. She equated her bill with other legislation that addresses human trafficking.
"It opened a can of worms," she told ABCNews.com. "The girl's family had been looking for her and she had been brought here by a 40-year-old."
Police confirmed the teen had been held against her will.
"She had been beaten and her pocketbook was open," Giannini said. "When she offered the rescue worker money, condoms fell out."
A rescue worker called police and found she had been wanted as a runaway by an FBI task force that targets people who prostitute children.
"If there's one case, it's one too many," Giannini said. "If there are other cases, they need to be rooted out, and we have to make sure the right laws are in place."
The case created outrage across the city and state.
"Bringing in a child at such a young age when they are vulnerable is a recipe for disaster," said Peg Langhammer, executive director for Day One, an organization that addresses sexual assault. "And it's important not just for girls, but for boys. It affects all our kids."
She cited research that shows between 60 and 80 percent of nude dancers were raped or sexually abused as children. Sexualization is also linked to mental health problems, low self esteem and depression, according to the American Psychological Association.
But police said that after the runaway incident, they have investigated all the city's strip clubs and found no other juveniles.
"We came to the conclusion that this issue had never been addressed in the past, but we don't think it's a rampant problem," police investigator Oates said.
Tom Tsoumas, co-owner of the gentlemen's club, Foxy Lady, said no one in his operation is allowed to work without a "definitive ID" that shows they are over 18. The club serves alcohol and has all-nude entertainers.
Gentlemen's Club Makes Its Own Rules
"As an employer, we don't believe anybody at 16 is a maturity level that would be an enhancement for the club," he told ABCNews.com. "We put in our own rules in the best interests of our ability to run a professional club."
"I don't think there's anything unique about Rhode Island," said Kevin McHugh, senior assistant solicitor, who researched the law and found two other cases in 1996 of young teens stripping.
"The city regulates adult entertainment establishments in two ways -- no alcohol beverage licenses (unless it's grandfathered earlier than 2003), and it's only allowed in certain zones," he said.
Meanwhile, some cynics who read the newspaper account by Amanda Milkovits had their own reaction.
Wrote one commenter, Mike, "As Rhode Island faces a flight of industry, jobs, and citizens and a deferred state budget nightmare, all of which will absolutely degrade the health and well-being of thousands of its citizens, the lieutenant governor finds the most pressing issue is strippers under 18, of which there are known to be exactly zero!"
"Seriously, no one looked into this before?" said another, bkin00. "What a laughing-stock this state is."