There are some small signs of progress in guiding teen-agers away from their little-known, and often-ignored involvement in prostitution.
Though this illegal and sometimes dangerous activity involves only a fraction of the nation's teen-agers, police across the United States estimate the numbers of teens involved is increasing.
In most cities, little is being done to address the issue, according to various government and private experts on juvenile issues, police, and others. And federal funds for programs that might be helping reduce the number of teen-agers turning to prostitution may be cut sharply.
But in several cities, including Boston, Denver, and Seattle, new efforts are being made to help teen-age prostitutes break away from the activity. And a California study, about to be released, on male teen-age prostitutes provides the basis for a clearer understanding of this aspect of the problem and points to some possible solutions.
While this progress is very limited in scope, a nearly completed federal report indicates progress on a related front.
Studies show that many teens who turn to prostitution have run away from homes where they faced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or neglect. It was in response to the runaway problem, not the teen-age prostitution issue, that the federal government a number of years ago began helping finance homes for runaways.
Some 169 such homes now operate across the US. And preliminary findings from a General Accounting Office report now in its final stages show that such homes have been highly successful in reuniting families and teen-agers by helping resolve divisive issues.
Though most experts interviewed said homes for runaways are not likely to attract the kind of habitual runaway that engages in prostitution, these experts agreed that the homes very likely help prevent more youths from becoming prostitutes by helping many runaways and their families solve conflicts.
Some 45,000 youths stayed at these homes in 1981 and another 133,000 dropped in for some kind of help, says Eleanor Chelimsky, who directed the GAO report.
The Reagan administration is requesting a 40 percent cut in funds for homes for runaways, as part of its overall efforts to reduce the size of the federal government.
In a related move, having failed earlier in trying to abolish the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, the administration is seeking to reduce its funds by 75 percent. One congressional staff source predicts Congress will not agree to the cuts.
But as many federally funded programs are melded into block grants to states, ''I think these kids (those turning to shelters or the few places helping teen-age prostitutes) will be the last on the list'' when it comes to programs funded by states, says Joyce Strom, director of Act Together, a nonprofit organization privately and federally funded to address children's issues.
How many teen-age prostitutes are there in the US?
No one knows for sure. Because estimates vary so widely and because of poor response to a national GAO questionnaire, a GAO report in April was unable to determine a reliable estimate.
But those responding to the questionnaire ''generally believed the number of teen-age prostitutes had increased during the last five years,'' the report said.
Estimating the scope of the problem appears to depend on how well one looks for evidence of it. In Boston, for example, staff workers of Bridge Over Troubled Waters Inc. have for nearly a decade sought out teen-age prostitutes and offered them help as part of their work. The program's director, Barbara Whelan, estimates that more than 1,000 teenagers involved in prostitution come in contact with the program each year.
Private researcher Kenneth Wooden, director of the National Coalition for Children's Justice, says: ''No one knows how many kids who are long-term runaways will turn to prostitution. My guess is a lot of them will. How else will they survive?''
Wooden, who has helped train police in several cities on child exploitation issues, says many police ''make fun of prostitutes.'' But, he says ''they are so ignorant that a lot of the prostitutes are so young.''
Some researchers point out, however, that teen-age female prostitutes are often made up to look older.
And an Atlanta prosecutor says: ''Prostitutes are not the thing people are most worried about crime-wise.''
Next: Helping teen-age prositutes