March 25, 2008 -- The arrest of a 13-year-old girl who allegedly lured other teens to dance and perform sexual acts for money at a Dallas nightclub has focused a spotlight on the widespread problem of teen prostitution and the challenge it presents law enforcement.
Investigators told ABC News' Dallas affiliate WFAA-TV that the teen enticed girls to work at Club Metropolis with the promise of money in exchange for sexual services.
Lt. Chess Williams of the Dallas Police Department would not comment on the specific case to ABC News, but WFAA video shows Dallas police leading girls from the club Saturday.
"The circumstance where we might arrest a juvenile is truly an unusual circumstance," Williams said to ABC News. "The far more prevalent scenario is that it's adults who are going after kids."
Dallas police have made going after the adults behind teenage prostitution a priority. It's an approach that Williams says is more complicated for law enforcement and prosecutors, but a more effective approach to a problem facing cities across the country.
The Dallas Police Department unveiled a pilot program in 2004 to try to gauge the extent of teen prostitution in the city.
During two six-month-long periods, 120 underage girls involved in some type of sex exchange were identified by police. "There were far more juveniles than we anticipated," Williams said.
While the program revealed a more widespread problem than first perceived, authorities also were faced with a challenge of responding appropriately -- a response that Williams said typically means treating the teenage girls as victims rather than offenders.
"We look at them first as potential victims who are being exploited by others for personal gain," Williams said. "It's pretty unlikely that a 13-,14- or 15-year-old decided, 'I'm going to inject myself into the prostitution worlds and turn 20 tricks a night.'"
"I don't want Dallas being portrayed as the juvenile prostitution capital of the world," he said. "This is happening across the United States. The question is how it's being responded to."
A survey published in August 2006 estimated that about 650,000 American teenagers -- girls and boys -- have exchanged sex for money or drugs.
The survey, published in the Journal of Sexually Transmitted Infections, surveyed 13,000 American teens from grades seven through 12 between 1995 and 1996.
The findings were particularly alarming, according to lead researcher Jessica Edwards of the Pacific Institute for esearch and Evaluation, because many of the teens involved in the sex trade also exhibited other risk behaviors, including drug use and carrying sexually transmitted disease infections.
"Three-and-a-half percent may seem like a small percentage, but it translates into a sizable number of youths," Edwards said, adding that she is now researching the the underlying factors that drive teens into prostitution.
Joshua Collier, a spokesman for the Promise House in Dallas, a nonprofit organization that offers services to at-risk teens, including runaways, said that counselors are well aware of the teen prostitution problem.
To a runaway, exchanging sex for money is an option that not only provides a financial benefit, Collier said, but might also provide an illusion of security.
"The sex industry is the place where a majority of these kids do turn," Collier said. "When you have somebody who has just run away from home, who has almost nothing, they are so much more susceptible to this kind of abuse."
The problem is exacerbated by adults eager to prey on vulnerable children, he said, citing 1,200 children and teens who sleep each night on the streets of Dallas.
"It's very much an offer of false protection," he said.
Williams, of the Dallas police, adds that the majority of underage people linked to prostitution are part of the the city's runaway population.
It's not clear whether any of the girls allegedly involved in the Club Metropolis raid were runaways, but it's one more factor that has prompted authorities to consider the children and teens involved as victims instead of criminals.
"All of these kids live in another world where they are both offender and victim," Williams said. "But the central thing we have to keep in mind is that these people are kids."